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Beacons Light Up Stem Cell Transformation

September 11, 2012
Beacons for bone

Glowing green spots in these MG-63 bone cells (each blue dot is a nucleus) indicate that a fluorescent “beacon” molecule has bound to RNA produced by expression of the bone-specific ALPL gene. Credit: Darling Lab/Brown University

Graduate students Hetal Desai and Chathuraka Jayasuriya are part of a team to demonstrate a new tool for visually tracking the transformation of a living population of stem cells into cells of a specific tissue. The “molecular beacons,” which could advance tissue engineering research, light up when certain genes are expressed and don’t interfere with the development or operation of the stem cells.

A novel set of custom-designed “molecular beacons” allows scientists to monitor gene expression in living populations of stem cells as they turn into a specific tissue in real-time. The technology, which Brown University researchers describe in a new study, provides tissue engineers with a potentially powerful tool to discover what it may take to make stem cells transform into desired tissue cells more often and more quickly. That’s a key goal in improving regenerative medicine treatments.

Working with Eric Darling, assistant professor of biology in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biotechnology, Desai and Jayasuriya designed their beacons to fluoresce when they bind to mRNA from three specific genes in fat-derived stem cells that are expressed only when the stem cells are transforming into bone cells.

Read more of David Orenstein's story about tracking stem cells.