Researchers at BRIC, University of Copenhagen, have identified a new gene family (UTX-JMJD3) essential for embryonic development. The family controls the expression of genes crucial for stem cell maintenance and differentiation, and the results may contribute sig-nificantly to the understanding of the development of cancer.
The results are published in the current issue of Nature, and it follows up on 2 other high-impact articles on related gene families published in Nature and Cell by the same research group within the last year.
How embryonic stem cells work All organisms consist of a number of different cell types each produc-ing different proteins. The nerve cells produce proteins necessary for the nerve cell function; the muscle cells proteins necessary for the muscle function and so on. All these specialised cells originate from the same cell type - the embryonic stem cells. In a highly controlled process called differentiation, the stem cells are induced to become specialised cells.
Gene family helps regulate stem cell differentiation The BRIC researchers have now identified a new gene family, which by modifying gene expression is essential for the regulation of the differentiation process. These results have been obtained by using both human and mouse stem cells, as well as by studying the devel-opment of the round worm, C. elegans.
Perspectives The new findings are in line with a number of recent publications that support the idea that differentiation may not entirely be a "one-way process", and may have impact on the therapeutic use of stem cells for the treatment of various genetic diseases such as cancer and Alz-heimers disease.
The research was carried out by a team led by Professor Kristian Helin at the new established Centre for Epigenetics at BRIC, Univer-sity of Copenhagen, in cooperation with researchers at the University of Edinburgh, and the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel.
Epigenetics is a relatively new field of research but nonetheless "hot" within biotechnological and biomedical research now. With the open-ing of Centre for Epigenetics University of Copenhagen joins the re-search front internationally, e.g. the EU has initiated a research net work for epigenetics - see http://epigenome.
Centre for Epigenetics is financed by the Danish Research Founda-tion for a period of five years as one of the eight newly established "Centres of Excellence". The centre, which consists of four research groups, is led by Professor Kristian Helin, BRIC, University of Copen-hagen.