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"Friendly" stem cells help others in times of stress?

Stanford postdoctoral scholar and cancer researcher Bikul Das, PhD, published some interesting findings in Stem Cells this morning regarding the behavior of - you guessed it - stem cells. From our release:

When most groups of mammalian cells are faced with a shortage of nutrients or oxygen, the phrase “every man for himself” is more apt than “all for one, one for all.” Unlike colonies of bacteria, which often cooperate to thrive as a group, mammalian cells have never been observed to help one another out. But a new study led by a researcher at the Stanford University School of Medicine has shown that certain human embryonic stem cells, in times of stress, produce molecules that not only benefit themselves, but also help nearby cells survive.

Das and his colleagues, including Dean Felsher, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine and of pathology, went on to discover that the stem cells' neighborliness is due to their ability to secrete an antioxidant called glutathione. But only a few stem cells, or hESCs, respond to stress in such a manner. This might be a good thing:

While altruism is generally thought of as a virtue, it can have a downside for hESCs: The altruistic cells appear to be more prone to accumulating mutations, a sign that they could lead to cancers. A better understanding of hESC altruism could provide new insights into cancer therapies, as well as improving scientists’ ability to develop safe and effective stem cell treatments for other diseases.

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