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Jumbo researchers make breakthrough discovery about adult stem cell behavior

Published: Friday, December 5, 2008

Updated: Friday, December 5, 2008 09:12



Tufts researchers have made a major discovery regarding how stem cells behave.

A study published by three Tufts scientists last month offers groundbreaking insight into regenerative science, showing that bio-electrical signals play a major role in determining the behavior of adult stem cells.

In their paper, titled "Membrane Potential Controls Adipogenic and Osteogenic Differentiation of Mesenchymal Stem Cells," the scientists discuss a new way to control the behavior of adult stem cells using electrical impulses.

In previous studies around the world, stem cell manipulation had been conducted using chemical signals.

"This is the first time that bio-electrical signals have been studied in this process," Biology Professor Michael Levin told the Daily.

Levin, doctoral student Sarah Sundelacruz and Department of Bio-medical Engineering Chair David Kaplan published their findings in the Nov. 17 edition of PLoS ONE, a Public Library of Science journal.

Levin, who is also the director of the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology, said that although the center always focuses on adult stem cells, this study could help scientists skirt the ethical debate over embryonic stem cell research.

Researchers at the center investigate biological systems, biological pattern formation and the application of data on these topics to regenerative medicine.

"More generally, our center focuses on new ways to get somatic cells to behave the way that we would like," Levin said.

"In very basic terms, we found that human adult stem cells use a bio-electric mechanism in turning into bone and fat," Levin said of his team's study. "There is a process that uses natural electrical signals, and these signals are used to control the adult stem cell behavior."

Levin added that these signals control the timing of when stem cells turn into bone and fat.

The scientists were able to successfully manipulate cells using these electrical signals so that they could control the differentiation of cells into desired types of tissue.

According to Levin, the electrical differentiation process they studied applies to non-stem cells as well.

Levin called the system "a new and very powerful" one that could potentially be used to help grow tissues needed by humans after injuries.

For a previous study, Levin successfully regenerated the tail of a tadpole using electric signals, a process that required the regeneration of spinal tissue.

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