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The discovery: “Those cells decided for themselves what to do”

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In the summer, the sun keeps him company from the laboratory window until late. It rises at 4 am and sets after 10 pm. A question of latitude, but Claudio Cantù he is now used to it. 39-year-old molecular biologist, since 2018 he has been working as an associate professor and researcher at the University of Linköping, Sweden, leading a team that deals with the genomics of embryonic development, a branch that aims to understand how the coordinated action of all our genes lead to the formation of complex organisms such as humans. A center of excellence, where science and technology meet, thanks to the synergy between various specialists. On 14 September his team, in collaboration with the University of Zurich (Switzerland) and the University of Manitoba (Canada), published a study in the prestigious journal Cell Reports: the discovery of a new mechanism that allows some stem cells to choose whether to multiply or differentiate.

Professor, what are stem cells?

“Cells that can be defined as ‘immature’, capable of proliferating while maintaining their own identity or transforming into specialized cells, such as red blood cells that carry hemoglobin or neurons that conduct a nerve impulse. Among different types, we study embryonic stem cells, special because they are able to form every tissue in our body. A real promise in the field of regenerative medicine, which seeks to develop innovative therapies to repair tissues compromised by trauma or degenerative diseases ”.

How did the discovery of cells that choose what to do?

“From a side observation, which we did not expect. To understand the response of embryonic stem cells to signals from other cells, called WNT, we induced mutations that hinder this ability of the cells to communicate ”.

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And what have you noticed?

“To our surprise, the cells continued to divide, even without the numerous chemical compounds that are usually added to culture media. From the cellular communication mechanism, interest has therefore focused on the regulation of proliferation ”.

What is the most relevant aspect of the research?

“Each time they divide, the cells are asked to decide: to generate two embryonic stem cells or one embryonic stem and another that begins to specialize. Several mechanisms of this choice are unknown, but we understand that the genes we modify are involved. They are called TCF / LEF, there are four, and they code for transcription factors, or proteins capable of regulating the activity of other genes, ‘turning them on’ or ‘turning them off’. Among these, we have identified three others, all located in a small region of chromosome 10. They can thus be regulated together, at the same time. It is important to point out that our discovery constitutes the small piece of a big puzzle, and a lot of work is still required to uncover all the secrets of these special cells ”.

What are the implications of your study?

“First, it reveals a previously unknown molecular mechanism by which cells decide whether to divide or specialize. Furthermore, many embryonic stem cells are needed to make other breakthroughs in pre-clinical research. The line we have created has great replication potential. And without growth factors, which are very expensive ”.

The next challenge?

“Explain the mechanisms that govern embryonic development. For basic research, to understand how it is possible that embryonic stem cells continue to proliferate even in the absence of external signals. In the pre-clinical setting, if they are still able to form every tissue in our body “.

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Is this a limitation of your research?

“Yes, without forgetting the ability of these cells to proliferate in an uncontrolled way. A delicate terrain, on which to move with caution, because it dangerously recalls cancer diseases. But also a possibility to explore further sectors of oncology ”.

Over 1,800 km between Brianza and Linköping, the fifth most populous city in Sweden, famous for its Cathedral and its ambitious sustainable development project. What’s it like to live there?

“The place is beautiful and the people are friendly. Unfortunately the temperatures are colder than Italy, our summer corresponds to your spring. And sometimes food requires strenuous compromises. Lots of vegetables, potatoes, fish. Le Surströmming (fermented herring, ed) make me regret the olive oil and, above all, the pizza. That’s why I prepare it in my kitchen ”.

It’s an example of a brain on the run. Where do you see yourself in the future?

“Here I feel good, I don’t rule out staying”.


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