Stem cells in nails, which normally grow both skin and nails, can focus solely on nail repair when a nail is lost or injured, a new study has found.
The researchers at the University of Southern California have identified a new population of nail stem cells, which have the ability to either self-renew or undergo specialization or differentiation into multiple tissues.
To find these elusive stem cells, the team used a sophisticated system to attach fluorescent proteins and other visible "labels" to mouse nail cells and many of these cells repeatedly divided, diluting the fluorescence and labels among their increasingly dim progeny.
However, a few cells located in the soft tissue attached to the base of the nail retained strong fluorescence and labels because they either did not divide or divided slowly, a known property of many stem cells.
If the nail is injured or lost, a protein called "Bone Morphogenic Protein," or BMP, signals to the stem cells to shift their function exclusively to nail repair.
The researchers are now wondering whether or not the right signals or environmental cues could induce these nail stem cells to generate additional types of tissue, potentially aiding in the repair of everything from nail and finger defects to severe skin injuries and amputations.
Principal investigator Krzysztof Kobielak said that it was very surprising discovery, since the dual characteristic of these nail stem cells to regenerate both the nail and skin under certain physiological conditions is quite unique and different from other skin stem cells, such as those of the hair follicle or sweat gland.
The study is published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).