Embryonic stem (ES) cells are pluripotent and can expand in vitro without any apparent limits, while retaining their ability to become any type of cell in the body. The long-term goal of this proposal is to link the molecular mechanisms of programmed cell death to those underlying ES cell renewal and differentiation, with a view toward accelerating the clinical introduction of ES cell regenerative medicine. In my preliminary studies, I found that caspase-3, an important mediator of programmed cell death, has an unexpected role in controlling ES cell fate. I demonstrate an increase of caspase-3 activity upon induction of differentiation and show that caspase-3 can directly cleave the Nanog transcription factor, leading to rapid loss of this core pluripotency- related protein and subsequent ES cell differentiation it typically mediates. These results suggest that caspase- 3 and perhaps other key components of the programmed cell death pathway may have an integral role in the regulation of ES cell renewal/differentiation. The central hypothesis of this proposed work is that classical mediators of programmed cell death, especially caspase-3, also mediate the fate decisions affecting pluripotent stem cells.
In Aim 1 I will dissect the functional roles of caspase-3 and its activating caspase in the fate of ES cells.
In Aim 2 I will modulate caspase activity in ES cells and assess the effects on self-renewal, differentiation and programmed cell death. I will also address the question of whether the differentiation-promoting activity of caspase-3 in ES cells is due to an instructive or selective signaling and elucidate if caspase activity provides a specific signal to differentiate or simply promotes differentiation in general.
In Aim 3 I will assess the importance of caspase-3-mediated cleavage of Nanog in ES cell differentiation. I consider the transcription factor Nanog to be a paradigm for other potential caspase targets in ES cells, so that my findings for this regulatory protein could well extend to other transcriptional pathways involved in ES cell differentiation. Results of the experiments described in this proposal are expected to provide insight into the pleiotropic effects of caspases in pluripotent stem cells. Thus, specific pharmacological alteration of caspases may be useful not only for modulating apoptosis, but also for directing stem cell fate. The involvement of caspases in nonapoptotic pathways suggests that efforts to block apoptosis via caspase inhibition could have much broader consequences than initially thought. The ability of embryonic stem cells to remain undifferentiated in culture while retaining the ability to become any cell within the human body make them an invaluable tool for use in transplant medicine, drug discovery, and understanding basic developmental biology. Results of the experiments described in this proposal are expected to provide insight into the pleiotropic effects of the cell death enzyme caspase on the differentiation process of embryonic stem cells. Specific pharmacological alteration of caspases may be useful not only for modulating programmed cell death, but also for directing stem cell fate.
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