How Nanog (left) and ERK (right) are expressed in embryonic stem cells. Credit: Hanuman Kale

A study has found how the protein Nanog helps maintain a delicate balance between the ability of embryonic stem cells to divide or to make specialized cells1. The study shows that the protein activates a specific signalling pathway which, in turn, regulates the activity of the protein.

This new understanding can help tweak the delicate balance between stem cell division and differentiation, enabling large-scale culture of stem cells for cell-based therapies, says a team at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad.

Nanog is required for maintaining the pluripotency of embryonic stem cells, and it is not expressed in most normal adult tissues. Pluripotency is the ability of a cell to develop into the three primary germ cell layers of the early embryo and therefore into all types of cells of the adult body.

The scientists, led by P Chandra Shekar, cultured embryonic stem cells isolated from the embryo of a mouse. They found that the protein activates a fibroblast growth factor signalling pathway that regulates its activities. The protein and the signalling pathway regulate each other.

Recent studies have indicated that Nanog is overexpressed in many types of human cancers, including breast cancer. The researchers suggest the relationship between Nanog and the signalling pathway obtained from normal stem cells may also be operating in cancer stem cells, which needs further investigation.