It’s electric: Stem cells change in response to voltage

By Ann Griswold • Published: March 25th, 2009
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

In a scene from a late-night horror movie, Igor flips a switch and brings Frankenstein to life. Now, Tufts researchers bring this image to the twenty-first century with findings published in the journal PLoS [PLOSS] ONE: The researchers are among the first to use electric charges to create fat and bone precursors from adult stem cells.

Stem cells are born with the potential to form any number of organs until they eventually receive a signal telling them what to become. The Tufts researchers used different electric charges to stimulate stem cells from adult bone marrow. Their findings reveal that different voltages signal the cells to form different body parts. When the electric charge is eliminated, the cells don’t differentiate. And even worse… turning off the electric charge while cells are forming can cause deformed limbs.

The Tufts findings may make it easier… and less controversial… to build organs from stem cells. Researchers now use an expensive process involving specific nutrients and growth factors to turn on stem cells in the lab, but future scientists may be able to use small glass slides to sort cells by electrical charge and, ultimately, organ type.

This news may be music to the ears of people who suffer from severe burns, cancer and other debilitating conditions. Just like turning the knob on an old-fashioned radio, scientists may someday be able to fine-tune stem cells from patients’ own bone marrow to form new tissues and bones.