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Key to stem cell Holy Grail found
August 31, 2005
A Korean husband-and-wife scientist team has made headway in adult stem cell research by discovering a gene in charge of differentiating the parent cells in human bodies.
The team, co-headed by Professor Hong Jeong-ho at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Professor Hwang Eun-sook at Harvard University, on August 14 said they pinpointed the gene, named TAZ. They found that TAZ regulates adult stem cells' growth into bone cells while the protein prevents adult stem cells from differentiating into fat cells.
"Up until now, researchers have dug up many factors involved in the differentiation of adult stem cells. But this is the first time that a gene modulating all of the factors has been found," 39-year-old Hong said.
Hong said he is now carrying out follow-up research to develop a way to make drugs with the substance that regulates the differentiation of adult stem cells with his wife and colleague, Hwang. "We expect TAZ to be effective in dealing with patients suffering from obesity or osteoporosis, diseases in which the bones become thin and susceptible to fracture," Hong said.
Their notable finding was featured in the latest edition of the U.S.-based weekly Science, one of the most illustrious peer-reviewed scientific journals in the world.
The mechanism of either adult or embryonic stem cell differentiation has been the most sought-after discovery to both camps of stem cell researchers. Geneticists believe the next target for embryonic stem cell study is to grow the versatile cells, which can become all cell types in a body, into specific tissues or organs. Adult stem cell researchers also agree that knowing the secret of making adult stem cells, which typically create specific cell types similar to their tissues of origin, will increase their therapeutic applications.
Korean scientists are in the driver's seat in both fields. In the embryonic stem cell sector, Professor Hwang Woo-suk of Seoul National University leads the world after having established cloned human stem cells in early 2003. Hwang and his colleagues bet on the huge medical potential of cloned embryonic stem cells that can develop into any type of cell, sources of tissue or organ transplantation without causing immune responses.
In comparison, many Korean scientists also put forth their efforts in adult stem cell research, which is already taking place in clinical applications.
Embryonic research has received criticism saying that the destruction of embryonic life for research purposes is murder and that reproductive cloning will soon follow.