The Scientist wrote a short profile of stem cell biologist Robert Blelloch of University of California, San Francisco in their monthly Scientist to Watch series.
I’ll skip over the portion of the profile in which they chronicle his graduate school work, which was in the same roundworm that so scarred my own memories of grad school. (He worked on organ development in C. elegans, work he refers to in the story as part of “the best years of my life.”)
They go on to quote Rudolph Jaenisch, who is a major force in the stem cell field and was Blelloch’s post-doctoral advisor.
“He’s serious about his work, he’s critical, [but in] a constructive way, and he’s a very easygoing guy,” Jaenisch says. “He was an important intellectual force in the lab.”
In his more recent work, for which he won Outstanding Young Investigator Award from the International Society for Stem Cell Research, Blelloch has been working out the role of a class of molecules called microRNAs. These recently discovered molecules turn out to be important in telling stem cells what kind of cell to become and are also useful in some approaches to reverting mature cells back into embryonic-like iPS cells.
This work shows the value of understanding the basic machinery of stem cells. Without knowing what makes the cells tick, other scientists can’t manipulate them into the types of mature cells like neurons or heart tissue that might be therapeutically useful.
Blelloch has a New Faculty Award and a SEED Award from CIRM. We shot a video a few years ago with a student of Blelloch’s talking about their work using microRNAs to reprogram cells.