Everyone hopes that one day stem cell-based regenerative medicine will help repair diseased tissue. Before then, it may be necessary to decipher the epigenetic signals that give stem cells their unique ability to self-renew and transform them into different cell types.
The hype over epigenetic research is because it opens up the possibility of reprograming cells. By manipulating epigenetic marks, cells can be transformed into other cell types without changing their DNA. It is simply a question of adding or removing the chemical tags involved.
Stem cells rely heavily on epigenetic signals. As a stem cell develops, chemical tags on the DNA or its surrounding histone proteins switch genes on or off, controlling a cell’s fate.
European labs are breaking ground in both the epigenetic and stem cell arenas. To build on this expertise and stimulate the exchange on novel technologies, the European Science Foundation organised the EuroSTELLS workshop ‘Exploring chromatin in stem cells.’ The event held on 23- 24 January, 2007 attracted 106 researchers from 15 countries to Montpellier, France.
“Epigenetics and stem cell biology are such clear strengths in the European research community,” remarked Bradley Bernstein, a guest speaker from Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston. “We’ve found ourselves working very hard in the US to catch up.”
Epigenetic research has benefited tremendously from genome technology, and work in the field is advancing at break-neck speed. “If you think that the first enzymes controlling histone methylation were found in 2001, the acceleration is tremendous,” says Robert Feil, a EuroSTELLS researcher based at the CNRS Institute of Molecular Genetics in Montpellier. “We are making good use of past investments in genome sequencing. In the next five years the technology will be ten times faster than it has been so far.”
Conference goers reported that new high-throughput approaches and refined analytical techniques promise to fill in some big gaps in understanding how epigenetic tags define a stem cell and how they can be manipulated. With this knowledge on board, researchers will be boosting the odds that one day stem cell therapies will reach the clinic.
EuroSTELLS is the European Collaborative Research (EUROCORES) programme on “Development of a Stem Cell Tool Box” developed by the European Science Foundation.
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