Scientists from The Forsyth Institute, working with collaborators at Tufts and Tuebingen Universities, said that they could trigger responses like increased cell growth, change in cell shape, and invasion of the major body organs.
The researchers said that their study suggested that electrical signals were a powerful control mechanism that could be used to modulate cell behaviour.
Dr. Michael Levin, the Director of the Forsyth Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology, revealed that the team had identified a new function for a potassium (KCNQ1) channel, mutations of which are known to be involved in human genetic diseases such as Romano-Ward and Jervell-Lange-Nielsen syndromes.
He said that interrupting the flow of potassium through KCNQ1 in parts of the Xenopus frog embryo resulted in a striking alteration of the behaviour of one type of embryonic stem cell: the pigment cell lineage of the neural crest.
When mutated, the pigment cells over-proliferated, spread out, and became highly invasive of blood vessels, liver, heart, and neural tube, leading to a deeply hyper-pigmented tadpole.
The observations made during the study showed that key properties of embryonic stem cells could be controlled through bioelectrical signals, and that potassium flows could be an important aspect of cellular environment, which is known to regulate both cancer and stem cells.
"In regenerative medicine, a key goal is to control the number, position, and type of cells. This research is especially exciting because it shows the importance of electrical signals for changing cell behaviour, identifies a new role in developmental and cell biology for the KCNQ1 ion channel, and strengthens the link between stem cells and tumour cells," said the paper's first author, Junji Dr. Morokuma.
Dr. Doug Blackiston, who jointly wrote the research paper, added: "In the future, this work may lead to a greater understanding of the causes of cancer and ways to potentially halt its metastasis, as well as suggesting new techniques by which stem cells may be controlled in biomedical applications."
An article on the research has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.