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The lab of Jean Cook, PhD, in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, found how a chain of proteins called an MCM complex could enable the fast cell-division that makes some forms of cancer so dangerous. The study first author Jacob Matson, a PhD candidate in the Cook lab performed most of the experiments.

Jean Cook, PhD
Jacob Matson, Graduate Student, Cook lab

A special cluster of proteins that helps unwind DNA during cell division plays a key role in keeping stem cells in their immature state, according to a new study by UNC School of Medicine researchers.

Published in the online journal eLife, this study illuminates the basic biology of stem cells, and suggests a new molecular handle for controlling them. Stem cells have regenerative properties with the potential to revolutionize medicine, but that potential is still far from being realized because too little is known about how these cells work. The study also points to a better understanding of how cancer cells manage to sustain rapid cell division without triggering cell death.

Jean Cook Lab DNA research Jacob Matson eLife Proteins Stem Cells
Red, stem cells. Green, differentiating cells. (Cook lab)

The study focused on a cluster of proteins called the minichromosome maintenance (MCM) complex, known to be a crucial factor in cell division. A cell prepares for the division process in part by loading MCM complexes onto its chromosomes. These complexes are needed to properly unwind chromosomal DNA during cell division so that two new sets of chromosomes – one for each daughter cell – can be formed from the original set.

“If MCM loading isn’t completed successfully prior to cell division, there’ll be a risk of major DNA mutations and death for the resulting daughter cells,” said study first author Jacob Matson, a PhD candidate in the Cook laboratory who performed most of the experiments over the course of three years.

The results suggest that MCM loading rate is an important factor in cell development, and that speedy MCM loading in particular is something that stem cells do to maintain themselves in the immature, stem cell state.

For more information on this study please click on the Vital Signs article.

The laboratories of Jeremy Purvis, PhD, assistant professor of genetics at UNC, and Anja-Katrin Bielinsky, PhD, of the University of Minnesota, collaborated in the study. Cook has a primary appointment in Biochemistry and Biophysics and a joint appointment in the UNC department of pharmacology and is the associate dean for graduate education at the UNC School of Medicine.

Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the W.M. Keck foundation.

Story courtesy of Mark Derewicz, , 984-974-1915

To submit a news story contact: Carolyn M. Clabo, 919-962-7642, UNC BCBP Communications