Researchers have found two proteins that regulate potassium in stem cells, a discovery they think might lead to better detection and treatment of nerve and heart diseases.
The study, conducted on a mouse model, is published in the journal PLoS ONE.
Dean O. Smith, vice president for research at Texas Tech, said that all cells, including stem cells, need potassium to divide.
Muscle and nerve cells require potassium to contract and to relay information throughout the brain.
In mature cells, the availability of potassium is highly regulated and disruption can lead to serious health disorders.
"These voltage-gated, potassium-channel proteins are vitally important in the brain and in muscle, including the heart," Smith said.
"If we can understand how and when they develop in stem cells as they change into nerve and muscle cells, then we can open the door to further exploitation of this knowledge in the detection and treatment of diseases that include Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and cardiovascular diseases, just to name a few."
"We kind of discovered these proteins by accident.
"Originally, we intended to make these stem cells differentiate into nerve cells that might then be suitable for transplanting into another animal to repair brain damage.
"To be sure the cells had differentiated, we examined the potassium channels that are normally found in mature nerve cells. As a control, we did the same tests on undifferentiated stem cells expecting not to find them. But, to our surprise, they too had the same potassium channels."
Other tests indicated that these stem cells were clearly not differentiated into nerve cells and could not function as such, Smith said.
Therefore, these potassium channels must play some other role in stem cells development.
"We're not sure what yet. But we think it might relate to cell replication. These two proteins are found in all mammals, and similar ones are found in animals such as fruit flies and frogs," he added.