McMaster University researchers discover “kingpin” of human stem cells

“We demanded that it be open access,” said Bhatia. “The data is so valuable. No one has ever looked at these cells before. I’m excited about offering this road map of these cells out to everyone else and see what they do with it.”

The McMaster scientists themselves are going to first focus on cancerous tumours for further research.

“That is terribly exciting,” said Bhatia.

“Maybe this has something to do with why they metastasize and why they go to other places in the body. Are there signalling pathways or genes that we should be turning off as a better chemotherapy that we can address and find? It’s giving us a bit of a road map to interpret the tumours in a very different way.”

The discovery came from simple curiosity. After years of staring at stem cells, Bhatia’s group wondered how they grow in circles with a group of cells inside and another group ringing around the outside edge.

“This is probably as nerdy as it comes,” said Bhatia.

“We started asking the question, what the heck is the edge? … We thought to ourselves that maybe the cells that were in the barrier — the fence, if you will, between the outside cells and the inside cells — maybe they were special. No one else had really looked at this.”

The group was given an annual $100,000 grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to find the answer.

“To be honest, we could have investigated this and found absolutely nothing,” said Bhatia. “What we found was that in fact, those cells seem to orchestrate everything.”

The group went one step further, working with the Harvard and Australia researchers, to look at thousands upon thousands of individual founder cells to create a gigantic database of how the cells are the same and what ways they are different.

“We have basically a genetic fingerprint of these founder cells now,” said Bhatia.

“It’s like a survey saying people in Canada like hockey. If you went to individuals and surveyed them you’d find people who hate hockey. You get a much different picture of the population if you interrogate them individually, which is exactly what we did.”

That database became available Thursday to the world’s health care researchers, engineers and scientists to mine for future discoveries.

“I personally think that’s how science should be done,” said Bhatia.

“People have come up with ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of.”

905-526-3349 | @Jfrketich

905-526-3349 | @Jfrketich