Long considered one of the inferior senses, anyone who has lost their ability to taste as a result of age or cancer treatment will tell you life's luster is considerably dimmed in the absence of this sensory experience. Fortunately, research into taste and smell is going strong in Philadelphia at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, which is the only non-profit scientific basic research institute in the world dedicated entirely to understanding these intertwined senses. Once an entity within the University of Pennsylvania, the Center branched out on its own several decades ago, with labs a few blocks from the Penn campus on Market Street. Researchers at Monell work interdisciplinarily and many have joint appointments with Penn. Other research projects are carried out in conjunction with scientists at Thomas Jefferson University, also in Philly, and indeed with university and private lab investigators around the world.
[Statuary outside the Monell Center, courtesy of their website]
Recently, Monell neurobiologists have been in the news for a major breakthrough in locating and understanding the particular stem cells that allow us to taste, or to experience and differentiate between sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory flavors. While scientists have known that the taste receptors are "buds" (clumps of cells) located in those raised bumps on the back of your tongue, that there are 3 primary cell types in those buds, and that these cells regularly regenerate, they hadn't actually located the common (stem) cell that then differentiates into those 3 cell types (two that create the 5 flavor senses and one that supports the others). In fact they didn't know if there was just one progenitor and if it was located in the taste buds or somewhere else. Now they do, thanks to the work of the Monell team that includes faculty members Robert F. Margolskee and Peihua Jiang, research associate Karen K. Yee, post doc Yan Li, and senior research specialist Kevin M. Redding. Their results were published this month in the journal Stem Cells.
The key in designing their project was to recognize a physiological similarity between oral taste cells and hormone-producing cells in the intestine. To locate the taste stem cells, the Monell team used a marker for intestinal stem cells to probe the taste tissue on the tongue. That marker is called Lgr5, and it turned up two stem cell expressions in the area they were examining: one stronger and one weaker. They guessed that the stronger expression could be the stem cell in its progenitor state and the weaker a similar cell on its way to becoming a taste cell. The Lgr5-expressing cells were capable of becoming any of the three cells associated with taste.
The implications for these research findings are no small matter, especially for people whose body has stopped producing (or reproducing) taste cells normally. According to Dr. Jiang:
“This is just the tip of the iceberg. Identification of these cells opens up a whole new area for studying taste cell renewal, and contributes to stem cell biology in general.”
The next step is to culture the new-found stem cells, with the ultimate aim of creating a regenerative therapy so that no one has to give up on one of life's great joys.
Biotechnology Calendar, Inc. looks forward to bringing basic science researchers and professional lab equipment vendors together in Philadelphia each spring to talk shop and eat tasty catered food at our two Philly tradeshow events, to be held next on May 15-16, 2013:
Philadelphia BioResearch Product Faire at the University of Pennsylvania, 5/16/2013
Thomas Jefferson BioResearch Product Faire Front Line event at Thomas Jefferson University, 5/15/2013
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Biotechnology Calendar, Inc. is a full-service event marketing and planning company producing on-campus life science research tradeshows nationwide for going on 21 years. We plan and promote each event to bring the best products and services to the best research campuses across the country. Life science researchers, purchasing agents, and lab managers are actively invited to attend to see the latest products and equipment and discuss their laboratory tool and service needs. See our Nationwide Show Schedule for 2013.