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About Sickkids
About SickKids

June 13, 2012

Researchers identify altruistic stem cells

Researchers at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) found that during times of stress or tissue injury certain human embryonic stem cells (hESC) exhibit behaviour that not only “protects” the hESCs themselves but also the cells nearby. This is the first time that altruistic behavior has been reported at the cellular level in Eukaryotic (animal kingdom) cells.

The study is published in the June 11 online edition of Stem Cells.

“Typically altruism is considered a virtue, but we found that the hESCs that demonstrated this protective behaviour were actually at a disadvantage because they were more prone to mutation which can lead to cancer,” says Dr. Bikul Das, lead author of the study, former graduate student/post-doctoral fellow at SickKids and currently a senior post-doctoral fellow at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Researchers studied how human embryonic stem cells respond in low oxygen levels. They found that under stress 10 per cent of hESCs exhibited low levels of p53, a protein that induces cell death in the event of too much DNA damage. This 10 per cent of hESCs maintained their ability to differentiate and demonstrated altruistic behaviour. The other 90 per cent of hESCs exhibited high levels of p53, differentiated or died.

“More research into hESC altruism and improved understanding of the p53 fluctuations could provide some insight into potential stem cell treatments,” says Das.

The work was supported by grants from Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute, Grand Challenges Exploration Initiative grant, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Laurel Foundation, Restracomp, SickKids Foundation, and James Birrell Neuroblastoma Fund.

Dr. Das initiated the study during his post-doctoral fellowship in Dr. Herman Yeger’s laboratory. Other members of Dr. Yeger’s laboratory also participated in the study including Reza Bayat Mokhtari, Micky Tsui and Shamim Lotfi.