Much like babies at birth, stem cells harbor the magic of possibility. A stem cell has the potential to become a multitude of different adult cells within the body. It could eventually mature—or differentiate—into a fat cell or heart cell or nerve cell, for example.
Cells in transition between a stem cell and adult cell are known as progenitors. Some progenitors are maintained within the body and used throughout a person’s life to repair and replenish organs and tissues. Others complete differentiation into mature cells during embryonic development, forming essential components of an embryo’s organs, including the heart.
Ivan Moskowitz, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics, pathology, and human genetics, and his team of researchers at the University of Chicago are interested in the timing of differentiation—why some progenitors differentiate quickly whereas others are maintained as progenitors for much longer. They have studied this in the context of heart development and have found that issues with timing can lead to congenital heart defects (CHD)—also known as congenital heart disease—which affect about one in 100 babies born each year.