Stem cells are already known for the ability to differentiate into various other cells in the body. Now we know that they can also delay their death, as shown by a new study.

This study, published on May 7th in “Current Biology” journal had planarians (type of flatworm) exposed to radiation, with one half of the worms receiving no additional injuries, while another was injured soon after receiving the dose of radiation.

“Planarian stem cells, even when challenged and under a lot of duress, will still respond to an injury by delaying death,”

said Divya Shiroor, first author and a graduate student in Dr. Carolyn Adler’s lab, in the  Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

1st group that was only exposed to radiation has shown predictable response in terms of stem cell death, while in the second group, stem cell death was considerably delayed. These cells gathered around the site of the injury and responded to it.

Planarians are popular with researchers due to their simplicity as a research model, as well as certain similarities in organ make up, genes and stem cell presence. However, the considerable difference between humans and the worms is their absence of a developed immune system, which slows down healing processes.

However, the researchers hope that by investigating processes that govern stem cell behavior in planarians, they will be able to single out genes responsible for this behavior in stem cells and engineer human stem cells to behave similarly.

Should it ever become an option, this may prove to be particularly useful for cancer patients, during the evaluation of options for surgical intervention and chemotherapy.