A team of scientists in Singapore have this week published an important breakthrough in human stem cell research, their findings crucial in understanding how stem cells work and how they might be used to treat debilitating illnesses like Parkinson’s Disease and spinal injuries.

Their research, which identifies the most important genes in human embryonic stem cells, is the first ever genome-wide study of human stems cells on such a large scale. They investigated the entire range of 21,000 human genes and found one in particular, PRDM14, that is instrumental in enabling stem cells to become any other kind of cell and retain that characteristic indefinitely. More importantly, they found that PRDM14 plays a part in human embryonic stem cells but not in those of mice, stressing the need for more research on human cells.

Singapore is at the forefront of human embryonic stem cell research, which has faced hurdles and government funding restrictions over the years in Western countries due to pressure from religious groups. By acting as a biotech ‘haven’ with freedoms not always available elsewhere, Singapore has been able to attract some of the world’s major talent to its labs.

The research team was led by the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) and the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), two biomedical research institutes of Singapore’s Agency of Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).