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Master regulator for skin development identified by Stanford researchers

You may be lucky enough to have perfect skin. But no matter how smooth and clear its surface (known as the epidermis) appears (or doesn't!), it's a complex mixture of many different cell types - each with a very specific job. The production, or differentiation, of such a sophisticated tissue requires an immense amount of coordination at the cellular level.

Now Stanford dermatologist Paul Khavari, MD, PhD, has cracked part of the code governing the development of the epidermis. The research, which was published yesterday in Nature (subscription required), could lead to a better understanding of many skin disorders, from eczema to skin cancer. As explained in our release:

Khavari and his colleagues have found that, like a traffic cop motioning cars to specific parking spaces in a large, busy lot, a newly identified molecule called TINCR is required to direct precursor cells down pathways toward particular developmental fates. It does so by binding to and stabilizing differentiation-specific genetic messages called messenger RNAs. Blocking TINCR activity, the researchers found, stopped the differentiation of all epidermal cells.

"This is an entirely unique mechanism, which sheds light on a previously invisible portion of the regulation of this process," said Khavari.

TINCR is particularly interesting because it's not a protein, but is instead what's known as a long, non-coding RNA. These lncRNAs play an important role in regulating the expression of other genes - in this case, by binding to and stabilizing other RNAs. Khavari's research marks the first time that an lncRNA has been shown to play a role in epidermal differentiation. According to dermatologist and co-author Howard Chang, MD, PhD:

This work revealed a new role for regulatory RNAs in gene activation - by stabilizing select messenger RNA transcripts. This finding highlights the ability of regulatory RNAs to fine-tune gene expression.

Unfortunately, the finding won't lead immediately to flawless skin for all. It might, however, help scientists figure out how to stop the unwanted division of epidermal cells (in the case of some skin cancers, for example) or to stimulate new skin growth in the case of burns or trauma.

Previously: My pet tumor-Stanford researchers grow 3D tumor in lab from normal cells
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