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Molecule E-cadherin plays key role in turning stem cells into nerve cells

12 December 2013

CRM scientists are one step further in unravelling how embryonic stem (ES) cells become nerve cells.

Differentiation, a process whereby stem cells gradually turn into specialised cells like the nerve cells in the brain, is regulated in a complex way. There are many factors that drive this process: some encourage the stem cells to become nerve cells, others do exactly the opposite.

Image shows how embryonic stem cells give rise to neural cells (in green) using established methods. By forcing the loss of E-cadherin, CRM scientists were able to generate a higher proportion of neural cells

One of these signalling molecules is BMP, a factor known for almost 20 years to prevent the differentiation of stem cells into the specialised cells of the nervous system. However, to date it still remains unclear how the underlying system works.

PhD student Mattias Malaguti in Dr Sally Lowell's group commented: "We set out to identify other molecules that were affected by BMP and discovered that E-cadherin plays a key role in mediating the BMP signalling process. We demonstrated that by removing E-cadherin, stem cells differentiated more efficiently into nerve cells."

Dr Sally Lowell continued: "Unravelling the BMP signalling pathway is a bit like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without having all the pieces. Gradually we are finding more and more pieces to complete the overall picture. By understanding more about the underlying mechanisms, we hope our research contributes to a better understanding of the development of neurological disorders like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's and motor neuron disease."

The study was published in the scientific journal eLife on 17 December 2013.