Stem cell mysteries unravelled

Thursday, 18 September, 2014
Although stem cells are only microscopic in size, they contain tremendous promise. Through them deeper understanding can be gathered on how cancers progress and persist and, in the case of embryonic stem cells, they look set to become a powerful tool for regenerative medicine.

Scientists across the world are trying to reach the next level of stem cell knowledge. Recently, the research community was moved one step closer to this by the European Union (EU)-funded project EuroSyStem.  

The four-an-a-half-year project took a step back towards basic science. “Our aim was to improve the fundamental knowledge base so that future applied stem cell studies have a better chance of success,” says EuroSyStem coordinator, Austin Smith, from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

There were many knowledge gaps within stem cell research when the project began in 2008. “We could not fill every one of those,” says Smith, “but our scientific contribution was significant.” One of the most important findings concerned pluripotent stem cells, which have the remarkable ability of being able to produce every cell type found in an animal’s body. Pluripotent cells can be obtained from embryos or created by reprogramming adult cells.

The EuroSyStem team used next generation sequencing technology on mouse embryonic stem cells to show how these go through at least two different stages of pluripotency and how the property can be increased. “This latter finding was particularly exciting,” explains Smith, because it may mean the same can be done to human pluripotent stem cells. This was a significant step as human pluripotent stem cells can, in theory, be used to create new, genetically matched cells to treat diseases and injuries, such as cancer or amputated organs.

However, working with human pluripotent stem cells has been notoriously difficult. They behave inconsistently and are slow to grow in laboratories – especially compared with mouse pluripotent stem cells. This is most likely because current human pluripotent stem cells represent a later stage of development. “Our findings supported this idea and suggested the possibility of generating a more stable human cell with higher pluripotency,” says Smith.

In addition to deepening scientific knowledge, the project team developed new technological platforms, advanced computational tools and improved information resources for stem cell biology. The project’s achievements were documented in over 120 scientific publications.

Smith feels such successes would not have been possible had the project not brought together so many diverse researchers into an innovative consortium. This gathered expertise on different types of stem cells (such as neural stem cells found in the brain or haematopoietic stem cells, which generate a variety of distinct blood cell types) together with advanced scientific technologies and computational modelling into a common forum. “In Europe, stem cell research is of a high-level. But it has been geographically scattered and hence isolated,” comments Smith.  

According to Smith, “projects like this are important to ensure that Europe stays at the forefront of global stem cell discovery.” Young researchers’ entry into the cohesive network was facilitated too, by organising networking opportunities, conferences and providing funding for particularly promising young scientists.

To improve information resources, the team supported the web portal,, to present stem cell research in a digestible form to the general public. The site attracts over 200,000 visitors per year. Overall, Smith feels EuroSyStem contributions have led to the next level of stem cell research. “And that brings international respect to Europe’s stem cell community,” concludes Smith
European consortium for systematic stem cell biology
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