Parkinson’s blog explains the science behind turning skin cells into a model for the disease

When my colleagues and I write about new advances in stem cell science we often rely on what I refer to as the Sydney Harris method of explaining the science. One of the cartoonist’s most reproduced drawings shows a researcher writing a series of steps on a chalk board with one in the middle being “then a miracle happens.”

Alex was diagnosed with Parkinson's at age 36. His skin cells became a model for the disease.

Alex was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 36. His skin cells became a model for the disease.

Our goal usually centers on helping our readers understand an advance and how it moves the field forward, not describing how the scientist actually knows what he or she is reporting. For anyone who wants to get inside the science, particularly about reprogramming skin cells to be stem cells, which we write about often, I suggest a visit to “Alex’s Skin Cell Blog.” A patient with young-onset Parkinson’s disease, it chronicles turning Alex’s skin cells into a model for the disease.

The research takes place at the Parkinson’s Institute in Sunnyvale and the blog features a conversation between Alex and researchers there. Most of the columns feature a CIRM-funded graduate student Lauren Pijanowski, and more recently, Birgitt Schuele.

They explain in pretty understandable pros and illustrations how scientists know things like: were they successful in getting the skin cells to become stem cells; how they make sure the reprogramming process does not damage the cells; and how they keep Alex’s cells alive in a tissue bank. In the most recent, Birgitt explains the use of fluorescent markers to identify cells that have become true stem cells.

This resource could be extremely valuable to teachers, but can also be fun for the simply science curious. For a wealth of more basics on stem cells for teachers, students or the science curious, also check out our high school curriculum.

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