Colored dye was used to track potassium-channel proteins in embryonic rats, research
that could lead to further exploration in the detection and treatment of diseases
including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cardiovascular diseases.
Researchers at Texas Tech University and the University of Wisconsin have discovered
two proteins that control potassium regulation in stem cells found in the embryonic
brain of rats.
Understanding this potassium regulation and how these proteins work can help researchers
develop better detection and treatment methods for diseases of the nervous system
and heart, said Dean O. Smith, vice president for research at Texas Tech. The findings
by Smith and Julie Rosenheimer, associate professor
in Biological Sciences, were published in the journal PLoS ONE
Since these stem cells had not yet developed specialized properties of nerve or muscle
cells, the potassium regulated by these proteins is probably required for the stem
cell to divide, Smith said.
“These voltage-gated, potassium-channel proteins are vitally important in the brain
and in muscle, including the heart,” Smith said. “If we can understand how and when
they develop in stem cells as they change into nerve and muscle cells, then we can
open the door to further exploration of this knowledge in the detection and treatment
of diseases that include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cardiovascular diseases, just
to name a few.”
All cells, including stem cells, need potassium to divide, Smith said. When grown,
muscle and nerve cells require potassium to contract and to relay information throughout
the brain. The availability of this potassium is highly regulated in mature cells,
and disruption can lead to serious health disorders. Therefore, scientists want to
understand this regulatory mechanism and learn when it appears in the developing
“We kind of discovered these proteins by accident,” Smith said. “Originally, we intended
to make these stem cells differentiate into nerve cells that might then be suitable
for transplanting into another animal to repair brain damage. To be sure the cells
had differentiated, we examined the potassium channels that are normally found in
mature nerve cells. As a control, we did the same tests on undifferentiated stem
cells expecting not to find them. But, to our surprise, they too had the same potassium
Other tests indicated that these stem cells were clearly not differentiated into
nerve cells and could not function as such, Smith said. Therefore, these potassium
channels must play some other role in the development of stem cells.
“We’re not sure what yet,” he said. “But we think it might relate to cell replication.
These two proteins are found in all mammals, and similar ones are found in animals
such as fruit flies and frogs.”
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