URBANA, Ill. – The lining of the intestines – the epithelium – does more than absorb nutrients from your lunch. It grows, shrinks, and adjusts the very makeup of its cells in response to whatever you just ate. And understanding that process might just give scientists new insights into the behavior of cancer cells.
“We are interested in how your diet affects the process of growth and renewal of intestinal epithelial cells, but we can learn so much more from this,” explains Megan Dailey, assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois. “For example, can you feed stem cells to make tissues of different sizes and cellular makeup Can you tell a tissue that’s proliferating when to stop growing?”
The ability of the intestinal lining to respond to your food depends on stem cells tucked down in tiny crypts along the epithelium. Certain cues cause stem cells to grow more epithelium, to be able to handle a higher volume of food coming in.
“If I go on vacation and start eating more food, my tissues will grow. But at some point, I’ll come back and my intestinal epithelium will stop growing and shrink back down,” Dailey says. “How do the stem cells know to grow it or when to stop What’s the signal?”
Stem cells are always replacing cells that are lost during normal wear and tear in the intestines. Dailey says most adults’ stem cells are focused on this renewal process, rather than growth, most of the time.