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Making Sense of Adult Stem Cells
By Nancy Touchette

In an attempt to better understand the complexities of adult stem cells, the National Institutes of Health has funded the Stem Cell Genome Anatomy Projects, a consortium of researchers studying stem cells from blood, bone, kidney, gut, liver, prostate and bladder cells. The consortium, which met this fall for the first time since its formation a year ago, plans to develop better ways to identify adult stem and progenitor cells and to characterize patterns of gene activity in the different types of cells.

Adult stem cells have been hailed for their potential to treat a variety of disorders, including diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, heart disease, and spinal cord injury because of their purported ability to replace damaged tissue.

Researchers studying adult stem cells would like to find the genes that control specific properties, such as the ability to replicate or renew themselves, or the ability to home into damaged tissue. But these attempts have been unsuccessful and results from different laboratories are sometimes in conflict.

The consortium consists of seven different groups from the United States and Australia, each consisting of researchers who study the biological aspects of the cells and bioinformatics specialists who focus on processing genomic data.

“The idea is to bring together people who don't normally meet,” says Leonard Zon, a researcher at Harvard Medical School in Boston, who heads one of the consortium's research groups. “We want to develop a common approach to try to compare different populations of cells.”

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Stem Cell Genome Anatomy Projects

One of the first challenges of the consortium will be to develop ways to purify populations of cells and to identify markers that can distinguish between true stem cells, which can renew themselves and give rise to many cell types, and progenitor cells, which divide a limited number of times and produce only one or two different types of cells.

The researchers are trying to identify “genetic signatures”—sets of genes that may define similar activities in different cells. They also hope to find out what genes might distinguish stem cells from progenitor cells.

The consortium represents a growing trend in scientific research: bringing together large numbers of researchers with diverse background to achieve a common goal.

“The consortium may serve as a model for how bioinformatics can be done across organ systems,” says Zon. “We're trying to figure out the best way to share data and information.”

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