A peculiar liquid droplet involved in stem cell differentiation may provide targets for new cancer therapies

Stem cells overflow with potential. Their ability to become other cell types is crucial to our bodies, both during development and throughout life. But this potential can be our very downfall if it goes wrong, turning some of our most useful cells into malignant cancers.

While investigating a pathway involved in stem cell differentiation, researchers at UC Santa Barbara found that rather than forming an assembly line or rigid structure, all the proteins involved coalesce into a liquid droplet. Through modeling and manipulation, the team began to reveal how cells use this droplet to process and relay information, and how it might malfunction in cancers. Their results appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The same processes that organize dew drops on a spiderweb are happening in the cells to make this liquid, molecular computer appear or disappear on command,” said senior author Max Wilson, an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology. “And when it goes wrong, it causes basically 100% of colorectal cancers and is implicated in a large number of other cancers.”

An important process

A host of mechanisms guide a stem cell to differentiate into a specialized cell type. Among the most important is the Wnt pathway — short for “wingless-related integration site” — which takes input from outside the cell, processes it and relays instructions to the nucleus. This starts a chain of actions that tells the stem cell it’s time to differentiate, as well as what type of cell to become. The Wnt pathway is involved in determining the fate of every stem cell, Wilson explained, and it appears unchanged across virtually all animals.

Stem cell differentiation is quite important during embryonic development. However, there are areas of the body where we have stem cells even as adults, such as our intestines, bone marrow and skin, to name a few. The differentiation pathways play a big role in the function of these tissues and organs.

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