The same genes that are chemically altered during normal cell differentiation, as well as when normal cells become cancer cells, are also changed in stem cells that scientists derive from adult cells, according to new research from Johns Hopkins and Harvard.
Although genetically identical to the mature body cells from which they are derived, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are notably special in their ability to self-renew and differentiate into all kinds of cells. And now scientists have detected a remarkable if subtle molecular disparity between the two: They have distinct “epigenetic” signatures; that is, they differ in what gets copied when the cell divides, even though these differences aren’t part of the DNA sequence.
“Relatively little study has been done on the epigenetic nature of stem cells,” says Andrew Feinberg, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “To date, the bulk of what is known about stem cells is focused on how you create them and grow them and so forth, but not on the essence of them, and what is fundamentally different about these cells.”
To compare and contrast mature connective tissue cells called fibroblasts with the pluripotent stem cells into which they were reprogrammed, the investigators focused on a chemical change known as methylation. This chemical change which, associated with silencing genes, is classified as epigenetic because, although not part of the DNA sequence, is copied when a cell divides. They identified and then measured so-called differentially methylated regions (DMRs) of genes whose expression was changed in the process of being reprogrammed from a parent cell to a stem cell.
Building on previous research that looked at where differently methylated sites were located in cancer cells, as well as on research that had shown these same sites matching up with many of the methylated areas that had been implicated in the differentiation of normal brain, liver and spleen tissues, the team discovered that the reprogramming of a cell to become a stem cell apparently involves many of the very same DMRs and genes.
“The surprise,” says Feinberg, “is that there is such a degree of overlap between the differently methylated regions and genes that are involved in turning a fibroblast into a stem cell and turning a normal cell into a cancer cell.”
The study, done jointly with George Q. Daley, M.D., Ph.D., and colleagues from Harvard University, was published Nov. 1 in the advanced online edition of Nature Genetics. The researchers suggest in the study that certain sites throughout the genome appear to be generally involved in distinguishing DNA methylation among different cell types and cancers, and these same sites are involved in reprogramming fibroblasts back into stem cells (…)