Stem cells have the unique ability to change into different types of body cells and can treat or manage critical diseases and conditions. Because stem cells essentially replace other damaged or lost cells and regenerate tissue, they’ve become invaluable tools for scientists.
Current stem cell research is quickly pushing the boundaries of what modern medicine can do, and it may not be long before doctors are regularly using cells to redevelop body parts and organs.
Yet despite their capabilities, one question that has always remained is: What kind of power do stem cells have to make their own decisions?
Are they a product of their environment or do other internal factors steer their course of development?
Up until now, scientists believed the environment cells reside in determine their evolution and function.
A new study, however, conducted by researchers from the University of Basel, recently determined that other regions of the body may affect stem cells, at least when it comes to the hippocampus.
This is an area of the brain located in the medial temporal lobe that deals with spatial navigation and memory, according to Dr. Ananya Mandal, M.D., writing for News Medical. Mandal notes the hippocampus is one of the first areas to be damaged by Alzheimer’s disease and cause memory loss.
The University of Basel pointed out that the hippocampus produces different types of cells. Some of these cells, like oligodendrocytes, astrocytes and neurons, are produced by neural stem cells.
The issue in question is why the adult hippocampus doesn’t generate oligodendrocytes – and researchers believe they may have the answer.
Along with the environment, the hippocampus fails to produce oligodendrocytes because of the Drosha enzyme.
This prevents oligodendrocytes from developing properly by blocking certain signals, according to the study’s authors.
“Our research results about the function of Drosha challenge the way we used to think about how stem cell fate is controlled,” said Veron Taylor, a professor of embryology and stem cell biology in the Department of Biomedicine of the University of Basel.
This is a breakthrough study considering scientists now have solid evidence supporting the claim that multiple factors could contribute to stem cell growth and development.
However, Taylor, and likely others, want to conduct further research into the relationship between Drosha and stem cells.
The authors didn’t note what role this might play in preventing or managing serious brain diseases. But it does help scientists better understand how and why stem cells transform.