Uncovering process that determines fate of stem cells may lead to better treatments for type 1 diabetes

By looking at markers on proteins known as histones, around which DNA molecules wind, a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania believes that it may be possible to predict the fate of embryonic stem cells. This knowledge could be used to steer these cells toward developing into insulin-producing pancreatic cells, which individuals with type 1 diabetes lack.

With this as their ultimate goal, the team set out to find clues that may indicate the ultimate fate of a stem cell. They watched as two sets of these cells developed. One set went on to develop into liver tissue while, the other eventually became pancreatic material. Cells of both tissues are known to share common types of stem cells.

The researchers analyzed markers on the histone proteins that provide structure to the DNA molecules of these cells as they developed. In addition to giving shape to DNA, these proteins turn certain genes on and off during the development process. The study, which was published in the journal Science, revealed distinct histones in stem cells that went on to develop into pancreatic and liver cells.

By identifying protein markers that decide the ultimate fate of stem cells, the researchers think it may be possible to engineer this material toward a particular purpose. It may even be possible to create insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas for individuals who have type 1 diabetes.

"We were surprised that there's a difference in the epigenetic marks in the process for liver vs. pancreas before the cell-fate 'decision' is made," said Kenneth Zaret, PhD, who led the study. "This suggests that we could manipulate the marks to influence fate or look at marks to better guess the fate of cells early in the differentiation process."

With this improved understanding, Zaret added that it may be possible to increase the supply of pancreatic beta cells for treating individuals with type 1 diabetes.