Scientists at Monash University, in Melbourne, have solved a mystery in molecular biology that could lead to a new way to treat cancer.
A team led by developmental biologist Professor Christophe Marcelle, of the university’s Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute, has discovered a key molecular pathway that determines the fate of embryonic stem cells in chickens.
The pathway dictates whether the stem cells stick together and replicate or, alternatively, migrate and differentiate into specialist cells, such as muscle cells.
The process starts soon after fertilisation at a time when cells are dividing rapidly. It is identical to that in humans, making the chick a good model for our species.
The team, which also included Daniel Sieiro, Anne Rios and Claire Hirst, published its results recently in the open access journal eLife. The work built on previous research.
The steps in developmental biology are complex, subtle and poorly understood. But they are the subject of intensive research world-wide because the same cellular and molecular processes that are tightly controlled and lead to the harmonious building of tissues and organs during embryonic development are those that go awry during the emergence of diseases.
“Understanding this complexity is bound to uncover novel routes to therapy to combat disease,” Professor Marcelle said.
The Monash University team found that four known molecules, called NOTCH, GSK3β, SNAIL and β-catenin, were critical to the process, at times and in ways not previously suspected.
“Cell migration closely resembles metastasis in cancer,” Professor Marcelle said, referring to the deadly spread of the disease throughout the body.
“The questions that we have addressed are not only interesting to scientists involved in muscle differentiation or developmental biology,” he added. “They are also important to those interested in cell fate choice, signalling and cancer.”