Sometimes advances in science and technology are the result of happy accidents. Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center were attempting to discover small molecules that could prod stem cells to turn into heart cells, and in the process stumbled upon a new compound—called isoxazole-9, or Isx-9—that prods stem cells to turn into nerve cells. When exposed to Isx-9, nerve stem cells from rodent hippocampi clustered together and formed spiky appendages called neurites, which typically happens when nerve cells are growin in culture. The Isx-9 exposure also prevented the stem cells from developing into other tpes of cells, and was more potent than any other neurogenic substances ever researched at stimulating nerve cell development.
More work needs to be done with Isx-9, and much additional knowledge still remains to be gained. For example, scientists know that when mature nerve cells send chemical signals—called neurotransmitters—to stem cells, the stem cells begin to mature into nerve cells, but they do not know what biochemical pathways or genes are involved. Dr. Jenny Hsieh, who led the study, said, "The big gap in our knowledge is how to control these stem cells."