You are hereFinding needles in a haystack: a new tool for stem cell research

Finding needles in a haystack: a new tool for stem cell research

By Emma Kemp - Posted on 29 June 2011

Skin hair follicle in 'resting' phase: Left: 'blue' marks the stem cells. Right: immunofluorescence used to visualise stem cells (red) and the stem cell niche (green).Skin hair follicle in 'resting' phase: Left: 'blue' marks the stem cells. Right: immunofluorescence used to visualise stem cells (red) and the stem cell niche (green).Scientists from two major European research projects, OptiStem and EndoStem, have discovered a new way to identify stem cells in many different tissues of the body. They expect this to be an important tool for scientists across the field of regenerative medicine.

Adult stem cells are responsible for the ability of a tissue to regenerate and are thought to be essential for keeping tissues healthy and young. In adult tissues, stem cells are very rare, ranging from 1 in 100 cells to as few as 1 in 10,000 cells. Progress in stem cell research thus depends upon finding these important ‘needles in the haystack’.  A lack of efficient methods to quickly identify stem cells, regardless of the tissue, poses a major obstacle to this progress.

In a paper published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on 27th June1, the team of Drs. Marazzi and Sassoon at the University of Pierre and Marie Curie/INSERM (UMRS 787 Myology Group) describe a discovery that may offer a solution to this problem. The effort, led by a postdoctoral fellow, Dr Vanessa Besson, developed a mouse model that allows them to detect cells expressing a gene known as PW1, which they previously demonstrated to be a ‘marker’ or identifier of skeletal muscle stem cells2. With their new model, the researchers were not only able to easily identify muscle stem cells, but found they could identify stem cells in every tissue examined, including the brain and skin. This discovery further underscores an idea that is the subject of considerable research by stem cell biologists: that all adult stem cells, regardless of tissue origin, may be controlled by a common system of genes and molecules.

While many tissues  (e.g. skin or muscle) can be repaired by their stem cells, other tissues such as the heart, brain and spinal cord show little regenerative capacity even though stem cells are present. Previous work from the this group has shown that the gene PW1 is involved in controlling cell proliferation, an important part of regeneration or repair. The team is now focused on investigating how to ‘wake up’ stem cells that are non-responsive to injury, such as those in the heart or brain. Using their new mouse model, they have demonstrated that in addition to rapid identification of stem cells, they can purify these cells and follow their behaviour in culture.

This discovery provides an important new tool for stem cell biology since it allows scientists to pick out and focus on the cells they need to study. The development promises to have significant impact upon the field of stem cell research in general, and on potential applications in regenerative medicine. 


Related links

  1. Besson et al. (2011) PW1/Peg3 identifies multiple adult stem and progenitor cell populations PNAS (published online ahead of print 27 June 2011; doi: 10.1073/pnas.1103873108)
  2. Mitchell KJ, et al. (2010) Identification and characterization of a non-satellite cell muscle resident progenitor during postnatal development. Nat Cell Biol 12(3):257-266
  3. OptiStem – A European Community Seventh Framework research project involving partners from across Europe, focussed on the use of muscle and epithelialstem cells in clinical trials for potential therapies.
  4. ENDOSTEM – A project supported by the European Community Seventh Framework and involving a partnership of 15 research and clinical teams from globally recognised academic centres, small biotech and large pharmaceutical companies working together to develop new strategies aimed at stimulating stem cells that are resident in damaged tissue to repair it in situ.


This work was supported by: the European Community Seventh Framework Programme through the projects OptiStem and EndoStem; the French Ministry of Research “Chaire d’ Excellence”; the Muscular Dystrophy Association of America; the French Foundation (Fondation pour l’Aide á la Recherche sur la Sclérose en Plaques); the National Multiple Sclerosis Society; Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale Avenir, Decrypthon; Ligue Nationale Contre le Cancer; Institut National du Cancer/Canceropole research grant programs; the French Ministry of Education and Research; Fondazione Pasteur-Cenci Bolognetti; the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR-Epistem). The Myology Group is the beneficiary of a Strategic Plan Support from the Association Française contre les Myopathies and is affiliated with the Association Institut Myologie.