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Don't go changing: New chemical keeps stem cells young

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3 February 2009

BBSRC-funded scientists at the Universities of Bath and Leeds have discovered a chemical that stops stem cells from turning into other cell types, allowing researchers to use these cells to develop new medical treatments more easily.

Stem cells have the ability to develop into many other cell types in the body, and scientists believe they have huge potential to treat diseases or injuries that don’t currently have a cure.

Professor Melanie Welham’s team at the University of Bath’s Department of Pharmacy & Pharmacology, collaborating with Professor Adam Nelson at the University of Leeds, have discovered a chemical that can be added to embryonic stem cells grown in the lab, allowing them to multiply without changing into other cell types.

This breakthrough will help scientists produce large stocks of cells that are needed for developing new medical therapies.

Professor Welham, who is co-director of the University of Bath’s Centre for Regenerative Medicine, explained: "Stem cells have great potential for treating spinal injuries and diseases like type I diabetes because they can change into a range of specialised cell types including nerve or pancreatic cells, which could be used to repair damaged tissues.

"Unfortunately, when you grow stem cells in the lab, they can spontaneously develop into specialised cells, making it difficult to grow large enough stocks to use for medical research.

"We’ve identified a chemical that will put this process on hold for several weeks so that we can grow large numbers of them in their unspecialised state. This is reversible, so when you take it away from the cells, they still have the ability to change into specialised cells."

Professor Adam Nelson’s team, at the Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology, made more than 50 chemical compounds that were tested for activity in the stem cells.The researchers found that the chemicals worked by blocking an enzyme, called GSK3, that can control when the stem cell switches to a more specialised cell type.

Professor Nelson, who is Director of the Astbury Centre at the University of Leeds, said: "This research is a great example of how small molecules can be used as tools to understand biological mechanisms."

The research was supported by BBSRC and is published in the prestigious peer-reviewed Cell Press journal, Chemistry & Biology.



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This image is protected by copyright law and may be used with acknowledgement of Nic Delves-Broughton, University of Bath.

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Professor Welham. (247KB)

Notes to editors

Heather K. Bone, Teresa Damiano, Stephen Bartlett, Alexis Perry, Julie Letchford, Yolanda Sanchez Ripoll, Adam S. Nelson and Melanie J. Welham, ‘Involvement of GSK-3 in Regulation of Murine Embryonic Stem Cell Self-Renewal Revealed by a Series of Bisindolylmaleimides’ is published in Chemistry & Biology, Volume 16, Issue 1, 30 January 2009, Pages 15-27.

About the Centre for Regenerative Medicine

The Centre for Regenerative Medicine (CRM) at the University of Bath is a premier UK focus for research, training and technology transfer in regenerative medicine. It is an interdepartmental network set up to enable work on regenerative medicine to be underpinned by an understanding of normal developmental mechanisms. It brings together groups working on developmental biology, stem cell biology and tissue engineering.

About the University of Bath

The University of Bath is one of the UK’s leading universities, with an international reputation for quality research and teaching. View a full list of the University’s press releases:

About the Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology

The Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology at the University of Leeds is a world-leading Centre which studies life at the molecular level to develop medical treatments and to advance electronic and chemical engineering. It brings together more than 50 academics with expertise in chemistry, physics, the biological sciences and engineering to focus on understanding molecular processes occurring inside cells and how these are disrupted by disease. Its ground-breaking research is being applied to creating new treatments to tackle diseases such as Alzheimer's, BSE and CJD. The University of Leeds has recently invested £1.5m in the Astbury Centre’s chemical biology research infrastructure, including a facility to discover small molecules with novel biological functions.

About the University of Leeds

The University of Leeds is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK with more than 30,000 students from 130 countries. With a turnover approaching £450 million, Leeds is one of the top ten research universities in the UK, and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. More at:


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £420M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.

The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research are Institutes of BBSRC. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

External contact

Vicky Just, University of Bath Press Office
tel: +44 (0)1225 386 883
mob: +44 (0)7966 341 357


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299