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S'pore scientists develop method to generate liver & pancreas precursor cells

Singapore scientists have developed a method to turn stem cells into a type of cells that give rise to organs, including the liver and pancreas.

SINGAPORE: Singapore scientists have developed a method to turn stem cells into a type of cells that give rise to organs, including the liver and pancreas.

Called endoderm, the cell type is highly sought-after for therapeutic and biotechnological purposes, but has been difficult to obtain from human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs).

The challenge lies in the ability of the stem cells to generate over 200 distinct cell types in the human body by responding to multiple external protein instructions to differentiate into other cell types.

So the stem cells tend to also form other types of cells even while being coaxed to generate a specific cell type.

To address the problem, scientists from the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) devised a new approach.

They screened for proteins and chemicals that promote the formation of a single desired cell type, and concurrently block the induction of unwanted cell types.

In the process, they uncovered combination of triggers that could drive the stem cells towards generating pure populations of endoderm.

"This unprecedented access to highly pure population of endodermal cells attracts pharmaceutical companies, who are interested in further making human liver cells to tests drug toxicities,” said Dr Bing Lim, senior group leader and associate director of Cancer Stem Cell Biology at GIS who led the team that carried out the work.

GIS executive director Professor Ng Huck Hui said: "This is a beautiful piece of work to delineate the early events in cell fate decision. The findings will enable researchers to obtain high quality endodermal cells for future applications."

In a statement, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), the parent organisation of GIS, said the study was carried out in collaboration with Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology & Regenerative Medicine, and other organisations.

The discovery was published in the scientific journal Cell Stem Cell in January 2014. 

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