Study done in frogs and reported in PNAS implicated the potassium channel KCNQ1.

Scientists have discovered that stem cell behavior can be modulated by disturbing a natural bioelectrical mechanism within frog embryonic stem cells. The interference triggered a cancer-like response including increased cell growth, change in cell shape, and invasion of major body organs.

The team recognized a new utility for potassium voltage-gated channel, KQT-like subfamily, member 1 (KCNQ1). Mutations of this gene are known to be involved in human genetic diseases such as Romano-Ward and Jervell-Lange-Nielsen syndromes.

The researchers interrupted the flow of potassium through KCNQ1 in parts of the Xenopus frog embryo. This caused an alteration in the behavior of the pigment cell lineage of the neural crest, one type of embryonic stem cells. These pigment cells were observed to over-proliferate, spread out, and become highly invasive of the liver, heart, blood vessels, and neural tubes, leading to a deeply hyper-pigmented tadpole.

The study revealed the molecular identity of a biophysical switch that allows neoplastic-like properties to be conferred upon a specific embryonic stem cell subpopulation. It also identified transmembrane voltage potential as a new regulator of neural crest function in embryonic development and demonstrated that potassium flows, which are known to regulate both cancer and stem cells, are an important aspect of cellular environments.

The study was completed by scientists from The Forsyth Institute, Tufts, and Tuebingen University. Results appear October 13 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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