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A severe limitation on studying human cellular diseases is being able to investigate them in the process of causing the disease or disorder.
One of the main methods that’s been looked into over the years is developing human stem cells into the desired type of cell for study. But this process is a complicated one and requires specific steps for each kind of cell.
On that note, researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine have discovered how to use genetically modified embryonic stem cells and convert them into thyroid cells, called thyrocytes.
Thyroid disorders affect a significant amount of the population, about 10%, with the amount going up among the elderly as people begin to live longer. There are multiple types of thyroid disorders and each one require individual research and study, but thyrocytes are required to make any progress in such research.
Their experiment utilized mouse stem cells and a specific gene known as Nkx2-1 (and more commonly as thyroid transcription factor 1) that is responsible for regulating the development of thyroid cells. It is commonly used in science as a marker against cancer development as well.
The mouse stem cells were modified to express this gene, which induced the cells to convert into thyrocytes. But the process is tricky and requires exact timing, along with other gene signaling, to work properly.
The researchers used extensive computational models and an entire genome-wide RNA sequencing to prove that the cells had transformed properly and were expressing as thyroid cells.
The production process requires much switching back and forth of the regulatory Nkx2-1 gene and the results suggest that there may be a time-dependent “bistable switch” that governs the process. Another factor is that the gene, in being able to bind to its own promoter and other cells, may act as a feedback loop that interferes with its own regulatory process.
What Does It Mean?
As you can see, the biological functions of the production of thyroid cells is highly complicated and we are just beginning to unravel how to mimic the processes that the human body has evolved over millions of years.
But now, with a (somewhat) easy method of producing thyrocytes, research into thyroid disorders can continue in earnest and hopefully result in medical treatments in the future.
Photo CCs: Solid cell nest of the thyroid gland – very high mag from Wikimedia Commons