Shape change turns stem cells into fat cells, scientists find

February 27, 2014

By YURI OIWA/ Staff Writer

Japanese scientists have found a method to turn stem cells into fat cells just by changing their shape, which could lead to new treatments for cancer and obesity.

The team of researchers from Keio University, Nihon University and other institutions had focused their studies on actin cytoskeleton, a protein-made fibrous structure that gives a cell its shape.

Stem cells, a type of cell that can develop into multiple kinds of cells and give rise to indefinitely more cells of the same type, have a linear actin cytoskeleton. That of fat cells, however, is crescent-shaped.

Using a special agent to disassemble the actin cytoskeletons of mouse stem cells, the scientists reconfigured them into crescent shapes. They then found the altered cells developed into fat cells.

The scientists also succeeded in engineering fibroblasts in skin, which also have a linear actin cytoskeleton, into fat cells as well.

A key factor, the scientists said, was MKL1, a protein that serves as the “switch” for various genes in cells. The disassembled actin cytoskeleton became bound to MKL1, causing another protein to deform the linear actin cytoskeleton into a crescent shape.

“If we become able to alter the shape of actin cytoskeleton in cancer cells and turn them into fat cells in the future, we may be able to cure cancer,” said Hideyuki Saya, a genetic control professor at Keio University who led the team. “Preventing the structure from developing into a crescent shape may block production of fat cells, leading to new methods of preventing obesity.”

The findings were published Feb. 26 in the British scientific journal Nature Communications.

By YURI OIWA/ Staff Writer
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