stem cells in their environment

You asked, we answered: KHP Summer School 2020

21 August2020

by Jessica Sells, Public Engagement Officer for the CSCRM

Back in June, the CSCRM took part in the 2020 King’s Health Partners Online Summer School, organised by the Biomedical Research Council at Guy’s Hospital. 60 young students signed up to the summer school, which runs annually to provide insight into careers and work within research, in order to encourage widening participation and access to higher education. The CSCRM hosted the students for a day of hands-on stem cell activities to complete at home, including:

Watching a stem cell lecture by our Director Prof Fiona Watt and completing a short quiz

Reading about our research in the CSCRM public facing booklet, and completing the fun puzzles inside it

Watching and commenting on our recent Insta Stories covering skin science from Dr Xinyi Du-Harper and Dr Christina Philippeos

Taking part in our #RecreateScience campaign

As part of the feedback we asked if any of the students had questions for our researchers, and our scientists have answered...

Work and Study...

Q: What did they study and university and what was their path of education/career to get where they are?

A: I studied Biology with a Year in Industry. I knew I was interested in living things and understanding how the world works, so felt keen to continue studying this at Uni. The Year in Industry was great, which I spent working on Asthma.

Dr Norah Fogarty: I studied Molecular Medicine as my undergraduate degree. This involved some lectures on developmental biology and embryology which I found fascinating and led me to do a PhD studying the development of the human placenta. My postdoctoral research was mainly focused on understanding how the cells that will give rise to the placenta are set aside in the human embryo. I am now starting my own group to further study placenta development.

Q: How do you get into a career as a Skin Scientist from GCSE's? What do you need to be a Skin Scientist?

A: A common path would include a Bachelors in Science (e.g. Biology, Biomedicine...), possibly followed by a Masters and a PhD in the filed of skin. As in any other research field, experience in a lab throughout your education is a great plus. However, what it really takes is interest and hard work! Read and learn about skin, skin stem cells and general aspects of cell biology to discover if this is your true passion. If it is, go for it!

Q: What do you spend most of your job doing?

Inês Tomás: My job involves wet lab (experiments), reading articles and doing some admin like answering emails and organizing events or your calendar. Ideally, these would be equally split, but it's easier to define on a weekly basis as sometimes I also need to attend some training, go to conferences, do some teaching or other activities.

Stem Cells...

Q: Is there a possibility for turning a stem cell into a different stem cell? For example, could you turn a skin stem cell into a blood stem cell in a similar way that there is a way to turn adult stem cells into pluripotent cells?

A: There is! This process is called reprogramming, and involves modifying the set of proteins and genes that a cell expresses to drive it from its old "cell status" to a new one. You can reprogram adult cells back to pluripotency, or cells from one tissue to another. However, this process is rather complex and inefficient. Improving our ability to reprogram cells can become a fantastic therapy to cure many diseases.

Q: What is the most current research project that stem cell scientists are working on?

Dr Norah Fogarty: I am currently working on making placenta stem cells from skins. In this project I am using a process called reprogramming to force skin cells to express factors that are normally expressed in placental cells. This will drive the skin cell to become a placenta stem cell. I hope that in this project I will be able to eventually make placenta stem cells from patients who have experienced problems in pregnancy such as recurrent miscarriage or preeclampsia. These cells would then allow us to study what is abnormal with these cells to understand these complications and potentially develop therapies.

Q: Is there a way to engineer a new cell or enhance a cell for a new function

A: We are able to convert cells from one type to another - not from scratch yet - still an amazing achievement. For example, we can make stem cells or even brain cells starting from skin cells. There are ways of boosting the cells by introducing genetic mutations or by integrating new genetic code to the cell - then it is capable of producing that extra protein. For example, we often introduce a fluorescent protein so that we can image the cells. In the same way, therapeutic genetic constructs can also be introduced. For example, in my research I introduce a new genetic code enabling that cell to express a new receptor. This receptor allows me to turn on electrical action potentials in neurons, thus making them fire whenever I hypothesise it to be therapeutic in different disease context.

Q: Is there a way to engineer a new cell or enhance a cell for a new function

A: We are able to convert cells from one type to another - not from scratch yet - still an amazing achievement. For example, we can make stem cells or even brain cells starting from skin cells. There are ways of boosting the cells by introducing genetic mutations or by integrating new genetic code to the cell - then it is capable of producing that extra protein. For example, we often introduce a fluorescent protein so that we can image the cells. In the same way, therapeutic genetic constructs can also be introduced. For example, in my research I introduce a new genetic code enabling that cell to express a new receptor. This receptor allows me to turn on electrical action potentials in neurons, thus making them fire whenever I hypothesise it to be therapeutic in different disease context.

Q: I was reading about animals with the ability to regrow entire limbs and organs, and I wondered if stem cell research is involved in looking at these kinds of abilities and how we might isolate how these animals accomplish this.

A: This is actually an active area of research. Animals like the newts can regrow their limbs after they have been injured. The formation of different tissues are driven by stem cells in all animals.

Q: Do you think stem cells will eventually let humans live longer by using them to replace our faulty cells in the future?

A: That's the hope. Some people store cord blood from their new born children, which is full of stem cells, in the deep freeze just in case something like this is possible in the future.

Q: Is there any research going into diseases such as MS and Parkinson's that majorly affect movement, and if so, is the research promising.

A: There is plenty of research ongoing on movement disorders such as Parkinson's disease and other neurological disorders which can affect movement such as MS. Most of it is promising, with some projects trying to understand the cause of the diseases to try to treat them with drugs. There are also a lot of ongoing clinical trials which are targeting some sub-groups within these diseases in order to provide a more personalised treatment to patients' groups.

Skin...

Q: How do silicone based products treat scarred skin?

A: Scars form when wound healing fails, leaving a thick, hard bit of tissue that the body struggles to get rid of. Silicone creams help keep the scar soft and flexible, and can stop them itching. Silicone sheets are sometimes used to put elastic force on a scar to encourage it to heal properly.

Q: Why are wrinkles on the skin so hard to reverse?

A: What we see as wrinkles are deep and widespread damage to the elastic fibres that keep your skin sitting up properly on your face or anywhere else. Your body can't really fix it as there's less of the cells needed to do it, and your cells are old too and can't do as much!

Ethics...

Q: Do you think that the development of stem cell research is going to be at all stunted by ethical concerns from the public, or will it eventually become clear that this science could dramatically improve patient care and quality of life?

Dr Norah Fogarty: I believe that it is important that the public are engaged with developments in stem cell biology. I think balanced opinions should be taken into consideration so that society can come to an ethical consensus as to what it feels comfortable with. One example where this was done successfully was The Warnock Committee which was set up in 1982 to discussion developments in the science of human embryo research. This committee brought together doctors and scientists from different religious backgrounds, lawyers, social workers, and other lay members of the public. From the discussions and recommendations made by this committee we now have the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act which all researchers must abide by. Because of these laws, advances in science made through human embryo research is largely viewed as positive by the public.

Q: Do you have any problems with the ethical side of working with stem cells?

Dr Norah Fogarty: I work with human embryos and have derived stem cell lines from blastocysts. In the UK, there are clear laws set out in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. These laws dictate what we can use embryos for in research and what we can't. For example, you can only keep embryos in culture up to 14 days after fertilisation. To work with human embryos you must get a licence and you have regular inspections by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. If a researcher is found to break any of the rules they can be heavily fined or sent to prison. I feel reassured that I, and my colleagues, work to these clear laws and regular inspections.

A: It used to be a big problem, and a lot of research wasn't done in America or Britain because of ethical concerns over stem cell sources. But these days, there are more sources of stem cells (e.g. donated adult cells), so it is a lot better.

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