“Form of rhino! Form of tidal wave!” The Wonder Twins from the TV show, Super Friends, fascinated me as a small child. With a simple uttered phrase the twins could transform into a rhino surfing a tidal wave. The hitch to their power was that it took both to transform. The adult science me finds this fact very reminiscent of stem cells that rely on communications from neighboring cells to transform into a specific cell type.
What is the power phrase uttered to adjacent stem cells? Do the cells require physical contact like the Wonder Twins to transform? To answer these questions, Asai and colleagues investigated the requirements for stem cells to transform into the form of a liver (Asai et al., 2017). They tested if the cells had to contact one another to initiate transformation, the key requirement for the Wonder Twins. In a special chamber, the group placed different types of stem cells. They found that while the stem cells could differentiate into liver cells, they could not fully form a liver-like structure unless they touched. To understand the power phrases uttered by stem cells, Asai and colleagues used the SOMAscan assay to tease out the communications between stem cells and their neighbors to transform into a liver. They found that the power phrases, which consisted of protein signals, changed depending on which types of cells were present.
This work is a large step forward in understanding the mechanisms employed by the body to regenerate the liver. These insights will no doubt will be invaluable to the research and medical community who seek to understand the secrets of the Wonder Stem Cells.
Asai, A., Aihara, E., Watson, C., Mourya, R., Mizuochi, T., Shivakumar, P., . . . Bezerra, J. A. (2017). Paracrine signals regulate human liver organoid maturation from induced pluripotent stem cells. Development, 144(6), 1056-1064. doi:10.1242/dev.142794