News Release

Stem cells on the road to specialization

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Copenhagen

Scientists at the University of Copenhagen have gained new insight into how both early embryonic cells and embryonic stem cells are directed into becoming specialised cell types, like pancreatic and liver cells. The results have just been published in the scientific journal eLife.

This latest research from the Danish Stem Cell Center (Danstem) at the University of Copenhagen, helps identify how stem cells create so called pathways and roads supporting their own specialisation. This understanding is an important step towards stem cell-based cell therapies for conditions like diabetes and liver diseases.

"The new insight that we have gained into the impact of the physical environment on cell development is highly valuable," says Professor Joshua Brickman from DanStem, "It enables us to create the optimal physical environment in the laboratory for stem cells and progenitor cells to develop into specific, mature cells."

On the road

Developing cells constantly move and while moving around, they organise and build a physical environment very much like a small city with pathways and roads. The new research published in the scientific journal eLife shows two important things. Firstly the embryonic cells receive signals from other cells that actually instruct them in how to organise and build the road leading the cells towards early stages of pancreas and liver cells.

Professor Brickman and his team also found that they could isolate these roads from the developing stem cells and literally freeze them. The saved roads were then used in a separate experiment which showed that in the absence of an important cell signal, the road alone can be used to improve the cells' development and differentiation towards mature cells.

"Apart from gaining new important insight into cell development, our work also suggests that some of the current approaches to human embryonic stem cells specialisation towards both pancreatic and liver cells may not have been effective, because the important role of these roads, the so called extra-cellular matrix, was ignored," says Joshua Brickman.


Read the scientific article

The Danish Stem Cell Center (DanStem) opened in the summer of 2011 and is the focal point for international basic, translational and early clinical stem cell research. Professor Joshua Brickman and his team came to DanStem from University of Edinburgh, Scotland in October 2011. In total, DanStem comprises nine internationally renowned research groups, including five recruited from Sweden, Switzerland, Scotland, England and the USA. All groups have well-established global networks and participate actively in numerous international research projects. DanStem addresses basic questions about stem cells and developmental biology in order to develop new stem-cell based treatment methods for diabetes and cancer.

The Danish Stem Cell Center is supported by two large grants from the Novo Nordisk Foundation (DKK 350 million) and The Strategic Research Council (DKK 64.8 million), respectively.

eLife is a new initiative by the Wellcome Trust, Howard Hughs Medical Institute and The Max Planck Gesellschaft. The journal is free for authors, open access, but publishes only the highest level of biological and medical science.


Professor Joshua Brickman
Phone: +45 5168 0438

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