Guiding stem cells along the correct pathways and reversing their mistakes is one target of cancer research and scientists from Tufts University say they have identified a novel and readily modifiable signal by which an organism can control the behavior of stem cell offspring.
Their laboratory works on bioelectrical signaling. There is always a difference in voltage, called the transmembrane potential, between the inside and outside of all cells, and controlling exactly what this difference is turns out to be vitally important. Specialized protein checkpoints sited in a cell's outer membrane regulate ion flow in and out of the cell, producing voltage gradients. These, combined with more conventional protein-based signaling systems, can specify cell destiny.
Building on other work at Tufts, that the properties of human stem cells growing in artificial culture could be drastically altered by changing their transmembrane potential, they asked whether tampering with the transmembrane potential of one kind of cell could have a 'domino effect' in a whole organism, altering the destiny of other cell types.
To do this, they focused on the development of neural crest stem cells, which are responsible for directing development of the face and heart, but which also generate melanocytes, the pigment cells of the skin. Using frog tadpoles and melanocytes as a model system, they showed that tweaking the transmembrane potential of a tiny population of 'instructor' cells sends a signal to developing melanocytes that causes them to overgrow and start to resemble metastatic cancer cells.
Most excitingly, they found that the signal can travel over long distances in the tadpole, and that the messenger carrying it is serotonin – an important neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation and many other aspects of nervous system function.
This novel bioelectrical method of changing stem cell behavior has huge implications. It is very likely that there are similar 'instructor' cells that direct other important cell populations, and changing their voltage gradients would be relatively easy (Levin's lab simply used an anti-parasitic drug already available on prescription).
The resulting bioelectrical therapy could potentially be harnessed to improve regenerative repair after injury, repair birth defects and detect and prevent cancer.