There was a chance of failure, and Tony Parenti knew it.
Parenti, a doctoral student in cell and molecular biology at Michigan State University, risked years of study on the hypothesis that there was more to a certain type of cell than other scientists assumed.
It paid off. Parenti and the team of MSU scientists he was working with discovered a previously unknown form of stem cell, and they found it by looking at cells that most of their peers thought were defective, possibly cancer-like.
Stem cells are like seeds, Parenti said. As an acorn holds the potential to become an oak, embryonic stem cells hold the potential to become anything in the body.
There are limits to adult stem cells, however. Cells that come from muscles, for instance, can only grow into new muscle cells. But scientists have figured out how to reactivate embryonic genes is adult stem cells, causing them to act like their embryonic counterparts. They’re called induced pluripotent stem cells.
But Parenti and Amy Ralston, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Parenti’s mentor, were curious. Embryos produce not only pluripotent stem cells but what are known as XEN cells, which make extraembryotic tissues that are vital, indirectly, to fetal development. Did the reactivation process produce those cells, too?
It does. Parenti not only found colonies of induced XEN cells in the cultures where he was producing induced pluripotent stem cells, but the team proved they aren’t cancer-like, as previously suspected.
The results of their study appeared in the scientific journal “Stem Cell Reports.”.
The implications of their findings are huge, especially for understanding reproductive problems from infertility and reproductive cancers and birth defects, Ralston said.
If scientists can study embryonic-like cells in the lab using reprogrammed stem cells, “We can ask questions about why infertility’s happening and eventually get to a point where we can stop it from happening,” Parenti said.
“You could spend a whole career picking a small slice of the pie here.”
Parenti conducted the experiment with mouse cells. Next, other researchers will determine if the process is replicable in human cells.
From late nights and weekends in the labs to relentlessly developing protocols for experiments, Ralston said Parenti’s proven himself dedicated to the field.
“He’s one of the few students who’s willing to challenge the central dogma of the field and look for something that might have been missed,” she said. “We could’ve been wrong. It could’ve been a creative idea that just didn’t work out. He’s been willing to take those risks over and over again.”