Through their lens: Christina Ren values City of Hope’s patient-centered philosophy

This summer we’re sponsoring high school interns in stem cell labs throughout California. We asked those students to contribute to our Instagram photos and YouTube videos about life in the lab, and write about their experiences.

Christina Ren is a junior at Monte Vista High School in Danville, California. She works in the lab of Dr. Ching-Cheng Chen in the Department of Stem Cell and Leukemia. Her current project at the City of Hope aims to study the impact of leukemia cells and leukemia-derived exosomes on stroma cell differentiation and its chemoprotective effect on leukemia cells. In addition to my interest in science research, she also founded a science community service mentoring program called Science Alliance Network which aims to help foster school clubs to pair elementary and middle school “buddies” with high school mentors to help these buddies on their science fair project. Christina also enjoys extracurricular activities, such as ballet, Chinese classical dance, flute, and swimming.

The City of Hope high school summer interns submitted this photo to our #CIRMStemCellLab Instagram feed.

Every day during my walk over to the cafeteria at the City of Hope, I witness my inspiration: a small patient room protruding from the elegant glass buildings of the Helford Hospital. Through the windows, I see a collage of photos plastered on the opposite wall, covering the entire surface of the pinboard like a monolayer of cells on a petri dish. Sometimes I stop and squint to see if I can make out the individual photos; they are all of people. Some are of patients out abroad traveling to scenic places, some of nurses and their fellow coworkers. There are also frequently patients in there, hooked up to expensive-looking machinery. One elderly woman wearing a soft, floral lavender headscarf was reading The Fault of Our Stars (I remember covers of books that I’ve read very well, and I recognized the blue, cloud shaped cover design instantly). Another young chap was chattering away with a caretaker the next day.

This moving sight stirs within me deep emotions of empathy, compassion, and motivation. It’s a daily, tangible reminder of who research ultimately helps: real people. City of Hope’s patient-centered philosophy is present at every corner I turn– a gate towards the front end of the campus writes, “There is no profit in curing the body if in the process we destroy the soul”. I attended a seminar talk from an associate professor entitled, “Neural Stem Cell-Mediated Cancer Therapy: From Bench to Bedside” where Professor Aboody talked on her research on neural stem cells for targeted drug delivery. I am reinvigorated each time I walk under the Mary Ann and Dave Brooks Bridge of Healing after lunch.

Though I do not attempt to glorify the drudgery of research at times, I am always honored to be a gear in this intricate clockwork striving towards scientific progress. Because I know, while looking through the window panes of that singular patient room, that research for the betterment of humanity is forever beautiful and sacred. Thank you, CIRM, for giving me this wonderful opportunity to work at City of Hope.

Christina Ren

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Blood vessels cells go with the flow

Harvard scientists have grown the cells that line blood vessels, called vascular endothelial cells, from embryonic-like reprogrammed stem cells. (These are the stem cells generated from adult tissues like skin, also called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs).

This wouldn’t be a big deal–after all the whole point of these cells is that they can form all the tissues of the body. What’s really interesting in this case is how they did it: part of coaxing the stem cells to turn into cells that line blood vessels relied on generating movement over the surface of the cells that mimicked blood flow. Basically, the cells needed to feel like they were at home.

The iPSCs responded by maturing into different kinds of cells based on the force of the movement. Cells that were exposed to a faster “flow” grew into cells that line arteries and those exposed to a slower “flow” grew into vein cells. It’s like deciding what kind of house you’re going to build based on the speed of traffic on your street.

The discovery has some immediate applications. In a press release, the lead scientist, Guillermo García-Cardena, said his team is now using this information to grow cells like those in regions affected by diseases like artherosclerosis (plaque build-up in arteries that can eventually lead to heart disease). Those cells are being used to understand how blood vessels are affected by arterial plaques and also what kinds of drugs might address the problem.

This study, published July 25 in the scientific journal, Stem Cell Reports, has a lot in common with other recent stem cell discoveries – namely, that where you put stem cells makes a huge difference in how they mature. Location and the cellular environment matters a great deal. A good example of this was recent work at the University of Pittsburg, which my colleague Don Gibbons wrote about a couple of weeks ago, showing that human iPSCs grafted onto a mouse heart scaffold would mature into a beating heart.

Another facet of the Harvard finding is that the blood vessel cells can perform three important tasks: mount an inflammatory response, keep blood from leaking from vessels and preventing clots. So another likely application is reducing the amount of the blood clot prevention drug, heparin, required for kidney dialysis patients and in patients with lung failure. Garcia-Cardena foresees a future when a dialysis patient’s own cells are used to create iPSCs which are then coated onto a device that they can use to reduce possible blood clots, instead of the routine heparin shots they now receive.

Rina Shaikh-Lekso

Through their lens: Michelle Tran learns programming languages to solve biological problems

This summer we’re sponsoring high school interns in stem cell labs throughout California. We asked those students to contribute to our Instagram photos and YouTube videos about life in the lab, and write about their experiences.

Michelle Tran is an incoming senior at the Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach. From a young age, she always had a great fascination for the natural sciences, spending hours out in the neighborhood collecting and analyzing plant and insect specimens out of scientific curiosity. More recently her interest has shifted more towards health and biomedical research and was able to pursue this at City of Hope this summer as an intern in the Department of Information Sciences. Outside of scientific research, she enjoys playing the cello, spending time on the tennis courts with her father, stand-up paddle boarding with her mother, traveling, biking with friends, and hiking.

Michelle sent us this video of her experience:

As of now, halfway through my summer internship, I can declare with great certainty that I have already learned much more than I had expected to learn over the entire summer. Before starting my internship at the City of Hope, my experience with computer programming was limited. I had always been interested with working with computers, but had never taken a formal school or online course in programming. On the first day of work, my mentor, a mathematician and scientific programmer, informed me that I would be working extensively with machine learning, Hugin (a software), and R (a statistical programming language) to mathematically model biological processes. Initially I was unsure if I would be able to work with these tools or even understand the technical language everyone in my department spoke, but now, a little over five weeks later, my aforementioned apprehensions are no longer concerns. I am now editing and running several modeling and machine learning programs in R every day.

Every day since my first here at City of Hope has been part of a great, long learning process. Not only have I become more comfortable working with machine learning and computer programming this summer, I have also gained valuable career insight from everyone around me. Although I did not fully realize or appreciate all I have gathered from others, I now look back to my interactions with people here and realized that I have absorbed valuable information and skills that I could have not gotten elsewhere. Over the last few weeks, I have received great exposure to the technical languages that biologists and computer scientists speak and am able to quickly follow their discussions of their thought processes and methodologies. I have also learned much about communicating scientific results efficiently and effectively to others, especially from my fellow summer academy students who did such great jobs presenting at our weekly discussions. Every researcher and practitioner who I have talked to here has given me wonderful life advice about keeping an open mind to learning new things or pursuing other fields.

Working in my lab at the City of Hope this summer has been an experience that I shall always look back on fondly. No matter where I will be ten years from now, the knowledge I have gained from everyone here at City of Hope will still remain with me.

Michelle Tran