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Aging (Albany NY). 2012 Apr;4(4):235-46.

Very small embryonic/epiblast-like stem cells (VSELs) and their potential role in aging and organ rejuvenation--an update and comparison to other primitive small stem cells isolated from adult tissues.

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  • 1Stem Cell Biology Program at the James Graham Brown Cancer Center, University of Louisville, Louisville, KT, USA.


Very small embryonic-like stem cells (VSELs) are a population of developmentally early stem cells residing in adult tissues. These rare cells, which are slightly smaller than red blood cells, i) become mobilized during stress situations into peripheral blood, ii) are enriched in the Sca1+Lin-CD45- cell fraction in mice and the CD133+ Lin-CD45- cell fraction in humans, iii) express markers of pluripotent stem cells (e.g., Oct4, Nanog, and SSEA), and iv) display a distinct morphology characterized by a high nuclear/cytoplasmic ratio and undifferentiated chromatin. Recent evidence indicates that murine VSELs are kept quiescent in adult tissues and protected from teratoma formation by epigenetic modification of imprinted genes that regulate insulin/insulin like growth factor signaling (IIS). The successful reversal of these epigenetic changes in VSELs that render them quiescent will be crucial for efficient expansion of these cells. The most recent data in vivo from our and other laboratories demonstrated that both murine and human VSELs exhibit some characteristics of long-term repopulating hematopoietic stem cells (LT-HSCs), are at the top of the hierarchy in the mesenchymal lineage, and may differentiate into organ-specific cells (e.g., cardiomyocytes). Moreover, as recently demonstrated the number of these cells positively correlates in several murine models with longevity. Finally, while murine BM-derived VSELs have been extensively characterized more work is needed to better characterize these small cells at the molecular level in humans.

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