Research concentrates efforts towards studying skin through stem cells

In a first of its kind, researchers from the University of Copenhagen have devoted efforts in studying the functioning and development of the sebaceous glands in the skin. The focus is mainly dedicated to maintenance and development of the skin and on the cancer mutations effect on the behavior of stem cells.

One of the main functions of the sebaceous glands is to moisturize the skin, it is especially active during the course of puberty. However, relatively less study has been dedicated in the field, despite its pivotal function.

Experts are particularly drawn towards the effects of cancer in normal cell behavior and also study the formation of skin and sebaceous glands and its replenishment throughout life. The study involves the efforts of researchers from the Biotech Research & Innovation Centre (BRIC) and the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Stem Cell Biology (DanStem) at the University of Copenhagen.

“We demonstrate for the first time ever how the sebaceous glands that contribute to the natural moisture of the skin are formed and how they are maintained throughout life by stem cells. This knowledge may be transferred to individuals with sebaceous gland conditions, e.g. acne or very dry skin,” according to Marianne Stemann Andersen from BRIC.

The study also draws attention to the behavior of stem cells and the changes that take place when researchers introduce frequently found cancer mutation to the skin stem cells. According to reports, the mutation did not cause the cells to divide as was expected. On the other hand, the stem cells showed a tendency to generate more cells and did not mature sebaceous gland cells when divided.

“In this case, the result is a sebaceous gland which – similar to tumours – continues to grow. We hope this knowledge can contribute to the design of better cancer treatment”, reports Associate Professor and Head of the Study, Kim Jensen from BRIC and DanStem.

For the study, experts tracked stem cell division in the skin of live mice. The individual stem cells were coloured by means of fluorescent proteins. This process helped the researchers to follow the stem cells during cell divisions and it also helped them to describe the heritage of individual cells, during generation of family trees.

Moreover, it was observed during the formation of sebaceous gland, stem cell were divided and it led to the formation of two daughter cells. This caused the formation of two new stem cells, thus resulting into growth of the sebaceous gland until it reached its mature size. It is at this point that the behavior of the stem cells changed and new cells emerged when the mature sebaceous gland cells burst in order to release the moisturizing lipids on the skin and were hence lost from the sebaceous gland.

“We used to believe that this mutation led to more frequent cell divisions. However, our research shows that its effect on how often cells divide is very mild. Instead, stem cells with the cancer mutation are much more likely to divide into two new stem cells than generating mature sebaceous gland cells. This explains why the sebaceous gland continues to grow after we introduce this mutation to the skin,” Svetlana Ulyanchenko from BRIC.

“In connection with cancer therapies that target cells that divide frequently, this means that cancer cells and normal cells are just as likely to be targets of the treatments. If we are able to determine what controls how often cells divide when mutated, we may be able to develop therapies that specifically affect cancer cells,” she adds.

In the future, researchers will focus more on the cancer mutations and will examine the different mutations in the cell interplay, in addition to studying the change in stem cell behavior. Altogether, the study will lay groundwork for treating cancer effectively in the future.