Bmi1 Controls Adult Stem Cell “Stemness”

Stem cell scientists from the laboratory of Ophir Klein at UC San Francisco have discovered a new role for a protein called Bmi1 that might give clues as to how to get adult stem cells to regenerate organs.

Ophir Klein, the director of the Craniofacial and Mesenchymal Biology Program and chairman of the Division of Craniofacial Anomalies at UC San Francisco, said “Scientists have known that Bmi1 is a central control switch within the adult stem cells of many tissues, including the brain, blood, lung and mammary gland. Bmi1 also is a cancer-causing gene that becomes reactivated in cancer cells.”

Crystal structure of the BMI1 protein
Crystal structure of the BMI1 protein

All stem cells are somewhat immature in comparison to their adult counterparts. Stem cells also have the capacity to divide almost indefinitely and generate specialized cells. Bmi1 acts as a molecular switch that, if pushed in one direction, drives stem cells to proliferate and grow, but if pushed in the opposite direction, keeps cell proliferation in check. Research from Klein’s lab now suggests that Bmi1 might prevent the progeny of stem cells from differentiating into the wrong cell types in the wrong location.

Downstream targets of Bmi1
Downstream targets of Bmi1

This new discovery suggests that manipulation of Bmi1 and other regulatory molecules might be some of the steps included in laboratory recipes to turn specialized cell development on and off to create new cell-based treatments for tissue lost to injury, disease, or aging.

Also, the dual role of Bmi1 in pathological settings might be intriguing. Cancers are, in many cases, driven by adult stem cells that behave abnormally. If these stem cells could be differentiated, then their growth would slow. Possibly, inactivating Bmi1 in tumor stem cells might be one strategy.

In these experiments, Klein and his colleagues examined those adult stem cells found in the large incisors of mice. Unlike humans, these teeth grow continuously and are, therefore, an attractive model for stem cell research. Klein explained, “There is a large population of stem cells, and the way the daughter cells of the stem cells are produced is easy to track – it’s if they are on a conveyor belt.” Early in life, human beings possess a stem cell population that similarly drive tooth development, but they become inactive after the adult teeth are fully formed during early childhood.

Mouse mandible showing  the large, paired incisors
Mouse mandible showing the large, paired incisors

In the current study, postdoctoral research fellows Brian Biehs and Jimmy Hu showed that at the base of the growing mouse incisor there is a stem cell population that actively expresses Bmi1. In these cells, Bmi1 suppressed a set of genes called Hox genes. When activated, the Hox genes trigger the development of specific cell types and body structures.

In the mouse incisor, Bmi1 keeps these stem cells in their stem cell state and prevent them from differentiating prematurely or inappropriately. “This new knowledge is useful in a fundamental way for understanding how cell differentiating is controlled and may help us manipulate stem cells to get them to do what we want to do,” said Klein.

As they state in the abstract of their paper: “As Hox gene upregulation has also been reported in other systems when Bmi1 is inactivated our findings point to a general mechanism whereby BMI1-mediated repression of Hox genes is required for the maintenance of adult stem cells and for prevention of inappropriate differentiation.”

Thus this finding from the Klein lab may provide a vital clue for the manipulation of adult stem cells and, perhaps, cancer cells.