Don’t Be Afraid: High school stem cell researcher on inspiring girls to pursue STEM careers

As part of our CIRM scholar blog series, we’re featuring the research and career accomplishments of CIRM funded students.

Shannon Larsuel

Shannon Larsuel is a high school senior at Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena California. Last summer, she participated in Stanford’s CIRM SPARK high school internship program and did stem cell research in a lab that studies leukemia, a type of blood cancer. Shannon is passionate about helping people through research and medicine and wants to become a pediatric oncologist. She is also dedicated to inspiring young girls to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers through a group called the Stem Sisterhood.

I spoke with Shannon to learn more about her involvement in the Stem Sisterhood and her experience in the CIRM SPARK program. Her interview is below.


Q: What is the Stem Sisterhood and how did you get involved?

SL: The Stem Sisterhood is a blog. But for me, it’s more than a blog. It’s a collective of women and scientists that are working to inspire other young scientists who are girls to get involved in the STEM field. I think it’s a wonderful idea because girls are underrepresented in STEM fields, and I think that this needs to change.

I got involved in the Stem Sisterhood because my friend Bridget Garrity is the founder. This past summer when I was at Stanford, I saw that she was doing research at Caltech. I reconnected with her and we started talking about our summer experiences working in labs. Then she asked me if I wanted to be involved in the Stem Sisterhood and be one of the faces on her website. She took an archival photo of Albert Einstein with a group of other scientists that’s on display at Caltech and recreated it with a bunch of young women who were involved in the STEM field. So I said yes to being in the photo, and I’m also in the midst of writing a blog post about my experience at Stanford in the SPARK program.

Members of The Stem Sisterhood

Q: What does the Stem Sisterhood do?

SL: Members of the team go to elementary schools and girl scout troop events and speak about science and STEM to the young girls. The goal is to inspire them to become interested in science and to teach them about different aspects of science that maybe are not that well known.

The Stem Sisterhood is based in Los Angeles. The founder Bridget wants to expand the group, but so far, she has only done local events because she is a senior in high school. The Stem Sisterhood has an Instagram account in addition to their blog. The blog is really interesting and features interviews with women who are in science and STEM careers.

Q: How has the Stem Sisterhood impacted your life?

SL: It has inspired me to reach out to younger girls more about science. It’s something that I am passionate about, and I’d like to pursue a career in the medical field. This group has given me an outlet to share that passion with others and to hopefully change the face of the STEM world.

Q: How did you find out about the CIRM SPARK program?

SL: I knew I wanted to do a science program over the summer, but I wasn’t sure what type. I didn’t know if I wanted to do research or be in a hospital. I googled science programs for high school seniors, and I saw the one at Stanford University. It looked interesting and Stanford is obviously a great institution. Coming from LA, I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to get in because the program had said it was mostly directed towards students living in the Bay Area. But I got in and I was thrilled. So that’s basically how I heard about it, because I googled and found it.

Q: What was your SPARK experience like?

SL: My program was incredible. I was a little bit nervous and scared going into it because I was the only high school student in my lab. As a high school junior going into senior year, I was worried about being the youngest, and I knew the least about the material that everyone in the lab was researching. But my fears were quickly put aside when I got to the lab. Everyone was kind and helpful, and they were always willing to answer my questions. Overall it was really amazing to have my first lab experience be at Stanford doing research that’s going to potentially change the world.

Shannon working in the lab at Stanford.

I was in a lab that was using stem cells to characterize a type of leukemia. The lab is hoping to study leukemia in vitro and in vivo and potentially create different treatments and cures from this research. It was so cool knowing that I was doing research that was potentially helping to save lives. I also learned how to work with stem cells which was really exciting. Stem cells are a new advancement in the science world, so being able to work with them was incredible to me. So many students will never have that opportunity, and being only 17 at the time, it was amazing that I was working with actual stem cells.

I also liked that the Stanford SPARK program allowed me to see other aspects of the medical world. We did outreach programs in the Stanford community and helped out at the blood drive where we recruited people for the bone marrow registry. I never really knew anything about the registry, but after learning about it, it really interested me. I actually signed up for it when I turned 18. We also met with patients and their families and heard their stories about how stem cell transplants changed their lives. That was so inspiring to me.

Going into the program, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a pediatric oncologist, but after the program, I knew for sure that’s what I wanted to do. I never thought about the research side of pediatric oncology, I only thought about the treatment of patients. So the SPARK program showed me what laboratory research is like, and now that’s something I want to incorporate into my career as a pediatric oncologist.

I learned so much in such a short time period. Through SPARK, I was also able to connect with so many incredible, inspired young people. The students in my program and I still have a group chat, and we text each other about college and what’s new with our lives. It’s nice knowing that there are so many great people out there who share my interests and who are going to change the world.

Stanford SPARK students.

Q: What was your favorite part of the SPARK program?

SL: Being in the lab every day was really incredible to me. It was my first research experience and I was in charge of a semi-independent project where I would do bacterial transformations on my own and run the gels. It was cool that I could do these experiments on my own. I also really loved the end of the summer poster session where all the students from the different SPARK programs came together to present their research. Being in the Stanford program, I only knew the Stanford students, but there were so many other awesome projects that the other SPARK students were doing. I really enjoyed being able to connect with those students as well and learn about their projects.

Q: Why do you want to pursue pediatric oncology?

SL: I’ve always been interested in the medical field but I’ve had a couple of experiences that really inspired me to become a doctor. My friend has a charity that raises money for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Every year, we deliver toys to the hospital. The first year I participated, we went to the hospital’s oncology unit and something about it stuck with me. There was one little boy who was getting his chemotherapy treatment. He was probably two years old and he really inspired to create more effective treatments for him and other children.

I also participated in the STEAM Inquiry program at my high school, where I spent two years reading tons of peer reviewed research on immunotherapy for pediatric cancer. Immunotherapy is something that really interests me. It makes sense that since cancer is usually caused by your body’s own mutations, we should be able to use the body’s immune system that normally regulates this to try and cure cancer. This program really inspired me to go into this field to learn more about how we can really tailor the immune system to fight cancer.

Q: What advice do you have for young girls interested in STEM.

SL: My advice is don’t be afraid. I think that sometimes girls are expected to be interested in less intellectual careers. This perception can strike fear into girls and make them think “I won’t be good enough. I’m not smart enough for this.” This kind of thinking is not good at all. So I would say don’t be afraid and be willing to put yourself out there. I know for me, sometimes it’s scary to try something and know you could fail. But that’s the best way to learn. Girls need to know that they are capable of doing anything and if they just try, they will be surprised with what they can do.

Stem cells reveal developmental defects in Huntington’s disease

Three letters, C-A-G, can make the difference between being healthy and having a genetic brain disorder called Huntington’s disease (HD). HD is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects movement, cognition and personality. Currently more than 30,000 Americans have HD and there is no cure or treatment to stop the disease from progressing.

A genetic mutation in the huntingtin gene. caused by an expanded repeat of CAG nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA that make our genes, is responsible for causing HD. Normal people have less than 26 CAG repeats while those with 40 or more repeats will get HD. The reasons are still unknown why this trinucleotide expansion causes the disease, but scientists hypothesize that the extra CAG copies in the huntingtin gene produce a mutant version of the Huntingtin protein, one that doesn’t function the way the normal protein should.

The HD mutation causes neurodegeneration.

As with many diseases, things start to go wrong in the body long before symptoms of the disease reveal themselves. This is the case for HD, where symptoms typically manifest in patients between the ages of 30 and 50 but problems at the molecular and cellular level occur decades before. Because of this, scientists are generating new models of HD to unravel the mechanisms that cause this disease early on in development.

Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) derived from HD patients with expanded CAG repeats are an example of a cell-based model that scientists are using to understand how HD affects brain development. In a CIRM-funded study published today in the journal Nature Neuroscience, scientists from the HD iPSC Consortium used HD iPSCs to study how the HD mutation causes problems with neurodevelopment.

They analyzed neural cells made from HD patient iPSCs and looked at what genes displayed abnormal activity compared to healthy neural cells. Using a technique called RNA-seq analysis, they found that many of these “altered” genes in HD cells played important roles in the development and maturation of neurons, the nerve cells in the brain. They also observed differences in the structure of HD neurons compared to healthy neurons when grown in a lab. These findings suggest that HD patients likely have problems with neurodevelopment and adult neurogenesis, the process where the adult stem cells in your brain generate new neurons and other brain cells.

After pinpointing the gene networks that were altered in HD neurons, they identified a small molecule drug called isoxazole-9 (Isx-9) that specifically targets these networks and rescues some of the HD-related symptoms they observed in these neurons. They also tested Isx-9 in a mouse model of HD and found that the drug improved their cognition and other symptoms related to impaired neurogenesis.

The authors conclude from their findings that the HD mutation disrupts gene networks that affect neurodevelopment and neurogenesis. These networks can be targeted by Isx-9, which rescues HD symptoms and improves the mental capacity of HD mice, suggesting that future treatments for HD should focus on targeting these early stage events.

I reached out to the leading authors of this study to gain more insights into their work. Below is a short interview with Dr. Leslie Thompson from UC Irvine, Dr. Clive Svendsen from Cedars-Sinai, and Dr. Steven Finkbeiner from the Gladstone Institutes. The responses were mutually contributed.

Leslie Thompson

Steven Finkbeiner

Clive Svendsen

 

 

 

 

 

 Q: What is the mission of the HD iPSC Consortium?

To create a resource for the HD community of HD derived stem cell lines as well as tackling problems that would be difficult to do by any lab on its own.  Through the diverse expertise represented by the consortium members, we have been able to carry out deep and broad analyses of HD-associated phenotypes [observable characteristics derived from your genome].  The authorship of the paper  – the HD iPSC consortium (and of the previous consortium paper in 2012) – reflects this goal of enabling a consortium and giving recognition to the individuals who are part of it.

Q: What is the significance of the findings in your study and what novel insights does it bring to the HD field?

 Our data revealed a surprising neurodevelopmental effect of highly expanded repeats on the HD neural cells.  A third of the changes reflected changes in networks that regulate development and maturation of neurons and when compared to neurodevelopment pathways in mice, showed that maturation appeared to be impacted.  We think that the significance is that there may be very early changes in HD brain that may contribute to later vulnerability of the brain due to the HD mutation.  This is compounded by the inability to mount normal adult neurogenesis or formation of new neurons which could compensate for the effects of mutant HTT.  The genetic mutation is present from birth and with differentiated iPSCs, we are picking up signals earlier than we expected that may reflect alterations that create increased susceptibility or limited homeostatic reserves, so with the passage of time, symptoms do result.

What we find encouraging is that using a small molecule that targets the pathways that came out of the analysis, we protected against the impact of the HD mutation, even after differentiation of the cells or in an adult mouse that had had the mutation present throughout its development.

Q: There’s a lot of evidence suggesting defects in neurodevelopment and neurogenesis cause HD. How does your study add to this idea?

Agree completely that there are a number of cell, mouse and human studies that suggest that there are problems with neurodevelopment and neurogenesis in HD.  Our study adds to this by defining some of the specific networks that may be regulating these effects so that drugs can be developed around them.  Isx9, which was used to target these pathways specifically, shows that even with these early changes, one can potentially alleviate the effects. In many of the assays, the cells were already through the early neurodevelopmental stages and therefore would have the deficits present.  But they could still be rescued.

Q: Has Isx-9 been used previously in cell or animal models of HD or other neurodegenerative diseases? Could it help HD patients who already are symptomatic?

The compound has not been used that we know of in animal models to treat neurodegeneration, although was shown to affect neurogenesis and memory in mice. Isx9 was used in a study by Stuart Lipton in Parkinson’s iPSC-derived neurons in one study and it had a protective effect on apoptosis [cell death] in a study by Ryan SD et al., 2013, Cell.

We think this type of compound could help patients who are symptomatic.  Isx-9 itself is a fairly pleiotropic drug [having multiple effects] and more research would be needed [to test its safety and efficacy].

Q: Have you treated HD mice with Isx-9 during early development to see whether the molecule improves HD symptoms?

Not yet, but we would like to.

Q: What are your next steps following this study and do you have plans to translate this research into humans?

We are following up on the research in more mature HD neurons and to determine at what stages one can rescue the HD phenotypes in mice.  Also, we would need to do pharmacodynamics and other types of assays in preclinical models to assess efficacy and then could envision going into human trials with a better characterized drug.  Our goal is to ultimately translate this to human treatments in general and specifically by targeting these altered pathways.

Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: stem cell insights into anorexia, Zika infection and bubble baby disease

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Stem cell model identifies new culprit for anorexia.

Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa are often thought to be caused by psychological disturbances or societal pressure. However, research into the genes of anorexia patients suggests that what’s written in your DNA can be associated with an increased vulnerability to having this disorder. But identifying individual genes at fault for a disease this complex has remained mostly out of scientists’ reach, until now.

A CIRM-funded team from the UC San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine reported this week that they’ve developed a stem cell-based model of anorexia and used it to identify a gene called TACR1, which they believe is associated with an increased likelihood of getting anorexia.

They took skin samples from female patients with anorexia and reprogrammed them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These stem cells contained the genetic information potentially responsible for causing their anorexia. The team matured these iPSCs into brain cells, called neurons, in a dish, and then studied what genes got activated. When they looked at the genes activated by anorexia neurons, they found that TACR1, a gene associated with psychiatric disorders, was switched on higher in anorexia neurons than in healthy neurons. These findings suggest that the TACR1 gene could be an identifier for this disease and a potential target for developing new treatments.

In a UCSD press release, Professor and author on the study, Alysson Muotri, said that they will follow up on their findings by studying stem cell lines derived from a larger group of patients.

Alysson Muotri UC San Diego

“But more to the point, this work helps make that possible. It’s a novel technological advance in the field of eating disorders, which impacts millions of people. These findings transform our ability to study how genetic variations alter brain molecular pathways and cellular networks to change risk of anorexia nervosa — and perhaps our ability to create new therapies.”

Anorexia is a disease that affects 1% of the global population and although therapy can be an effective treatment for some, many do not make a full recovery. Stem cell-based models could prove to be a new method for unlocking new clues into what causes anorexia and what can cure it.

Nature versus Zika, who will win?

Zika virus is no longer dominating the news headlines these days compared to 2015 when large outbreaks of the virus in the Southern hemisphere came to a head. However, the threat of Zika-induced birth defects, like microcephaly to pregnant women and their unborn children is no less real or serious two years later. There are still no effective vaccines or antiviral drugs that prevent Zika infection but scientists are working fast to meet this unmet need.

Speaking of which, scientists at UCLA think they might have a new weapon in the war against Zika. Back in 2013, they reported that a natural compound in the body called 25HC was effective at attacking viruses and prevented human cells from being infected by viruses like HIV, Ebola and Hepatitis C.

When the Zika outbreak hit, they thought that this compound could potentially be effective at preventing Zika infection as well. In their new study published in the journal Immunity, they tested a synthetic version of 25HC in animal and primate models, they found that it protected against infection. They also tested the compound on human brain organoids, or mini brains in a dish made from pluripotent stem cells. Brain organoids are typically susceptible to Zika infection, which causes substantial cell damage, but this was prevented by treatment with 25HC.

Left to right: (1) Zika virus (green) infects and destroys the formation of neurons (pink) in human stem cell-derived brain organoids.  (2) 25HC blocks Zika infection and preserves neuron formation in the organoids. (3) Reduced brain size and structure in a Zika-infected mouse brain. (4) 25HC preserves mouse brain size and structure. Image courtesy of UCLA Stem Cell.

A UCLA news release summarized the impact that this research could have on the prevention of Zika infection,

“The new research highlights the potential use of 25HC to combat Zika virus infection and prevent its devastating outcomes, such as microcephaly. The research team will further study whether 25HC can be modified to be even more effective against Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses.”

Harnessing a naturally made weapon already found in the human body to fight Zika could be an alternative strategy to preventing Zika infection.

Gene therapy in stem cells gives hope to bubble-babies.

Last week, an inspiring and touching story was reported by Erin Allday in the San Francisco Chronicle. She featured Ja’Ceon Golden, a young baby not even 6 months old, who was born into a life of isolation because he lacked a properly functioning immune system. Ja’Ceon had a rare disease called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), also known as bubble-baby disease.

 

Ja’Ceon Golden is treated by patient care assistant Grace Deng (center) and pediatric oncology nurse Kat Wienskowski. Photo: Santiago Mejia, The Chronicle.

Babies with SCID lack the body’s immune defenses against infectious diseases and are forced to live in a sterile environment. Without early treatment, SCID babies often die within one year due to recurring infections. Bone marrow transplantation is the most common treatment for SCID, but it’s only effective if the patient has a donor that is a perfect genetic match, which is only possible for about one out of five babies with this disease.

Advances in gene therapy are giving SCID babies like Ja’Ceon hope for safer, more effective cures. The SF Chronicle piece highlights two CIRM-funded clinical trials for SCID run by UCLA in collaboration with UCSF and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In these trials, scientists isolate the bone marrow stem cells from SCID babies, correct the genetic mutation causing SCID in their stem cells, and then transplant them back into the patient to give them a healthy new immune system.

The initial results from these clinical trials are promising and support other findings that gene therapy could be an effective treatment for certain genetic diseases. CIRM’s Senior Science Officer, Sohel Talib, was quoted in the Chronicle piece saying,

“Gene therapy has been shown to work, the efficacy has been shown. And it’s safe. The confidence has come. Now we have to follow it up.”

Ja’Ceon was the first baby treated at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital and so far, he is responding well to the treatment. His great aunt Dannie Hawkins said that it was initially hard for her to enroll Ja’Ceon in this trial because she was a partial genetic match and had the option of donating her own bone-marrow to help save his life. In the end, she decided that his involvement in the trial would “open the door for other kids” to receive this treatment if it worked.

Ja’Ceon Golden plays with patient care assistant Grace Deng in a sterile play area at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.Photo: Santiago Mejia, The Chronicle

It’s brave patients and family members like Ja’Ceon and Dannie that make it possible for research to advance from clinical trials into effective treatments for future patients. We at CIRM are eternally grateful for their strength and the sacrifices they make to participate in these trials.

Stem Cell Stories That Caught Our Eye: Three new ways to target cancer stem cells

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Targeting cancer stem cells. This week, three studies came out with novel ways for targeting cancer stem cells in different types of cancers. Here’s a brief run-down of this trifecta of cancer stem cell-crushing stories:

Take your vitamins! Scientists in the UK were experimenting on cancer stem cells and comparing natural substances to on-the-market cancer drugs to determine whether any of the natural substances were effective at disrupting the metabolism (the chemical reactions that keep cells alive and functioning) of cancer stem cells. Interestingly, they found that ascorbic acid, which you’ll know as Vitamin C, was ten times better at curbing cancer stem cell growth compared to a cancer drug called 2-DG.

Vitamin C has popped up as an anti-cancer treatment in the past when Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling found that it dramatically reduced the death rate in breast cancer patients. However this current study is the first to show that Vitamin C has a direct effect on cancer stem cells.

In coverage by ScienceDaily, the UK team hinted at plans to test Vitamin C in clinical trials:

“Vitamin C is cheap, natural, non-toxic and readily available so to have it as a potential weapon in the fight against cancer would be a significant step. Our results indicate it is a promising agent for clinical trials, and a as an add-on to more conventional therapies, to prevent tumour recurrence, further disease progression and metastasis.”

 

A gene called ZEB1 determines how aggressive brain tumors are. A team from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center was interested to know how cancer stem cells in aggressive brain tumors called gliomas survive, reproduce and affect patient survival. In a study published in Scientific Reports, they studied the genetic information of over 4000 brain tumor samples and found ZEB1, a gene that regulates tumor growth and is associated with patient survival.

They found that patients with a healthy copy of the ZEB1 gene had a higher survival rate and less aggressive tumors compared to patients that didn’t have ZEB1 or had a mutated version of the gene.

In coverage by ScienceDaily, the senior author on the study explained how their study’s findings will allow for more personalized treatments for patients with glioma based on whether they have ZEB1 or not:

“Patients without the gene in their tumors have more aggressive cancers that act like stem cells by developing into an uncontrollable number of cell types. This new information could help us to measure the mutation in these patients so that we are able to provide a more accurate prognosis and treatment plan.”

 

Beating resistant tumors by squashing cancer stem cells. Our final cancer stem cell story today comes from the UCLA School of Dentistry. This team is studying another type of aggressive cancer called a squamous cell carcinoma that causes tumors in the head and neck. Often these tumors resist treatment and spread to a patient’s lymph nodes, which quickly reduces their survival rate.

The UCLA team thought that maybe pesky cancer stem cells were to blame for the aggressive and resistant nature of these head and neck tumors. In a study published in Cell Stem Cell, they developed a mouse model of head and neck carcinoma and isolated cancer stem cells from the tumors of these mice. When they studied these stem cells, they found that they expressed unique proteins compared to non-cancer cells. These included Bmi1, a well-known stem cell protein, and AP-1, a transcription factor protein that regulates other cancer genes.

At left, head and neck squamous cell carcinoma invasive growth, and at right, cancer stem cells (shown in red) in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. (Image Demeng Chen and Cun-Yu Wang/UCLA)

After identifying the culprits, the team developed a new combination strategy that targeted the cancer stem cells while also killing off the tumors using chemotherapy drugs.

In a UCLA Newsroom press release, the lead scientist on the study Dr. Cun-Yu Wang explained the importance of their study for the future treatment of cancer and solid tumors:

“This study shows that for the first time, targeting the proliferating tumor mass and dormant cancer stem cells with combination therapy effectively inhibited tumor growth and prevented metastasis compared to monotherapy in mice. Our discovery could be applied to other solid tumors such as breast and colon cancer, which also frequently metastasizes to lymph nodes or distant organs.”

Teach your kids about stem cells and science with Think-A-Lot-Tots children’s books

It’s never too early to start learning.

When it comes to teaching science to kids, here’s my advice: don’t shy away from talking about topics like mitochondria or nuclei. Children are curious and intelligent. They can understand complex scientific concepts if you engage them in the right way. So it’s time to set aside the baby talk and educate young minds about science early so that they can understand their own biology and the world around them.

There are many ways to educate kids about science, but a tried and true method is children’s picture books. Images capture children’s attention and tell a visual story that connects with their brains better than words can on their own.

Thomai Dion

Thomai Dion

One of my favorite children’s science books is a series called “Think-A-Lot-Tots.” They are written for babies, toddlers and kids and have beautiful hand-drawn illustrations. The author, Dr. Thomai Dion, is a pharmacist and science writer who was inspired to write this series to satisfy her young son’s curiosity for science. So far she has written books about animal cells, neurons, microorganisms, and just this week, she published a new book about stem cells!

I have to admit that I’m to blame for this new stem cell book. When I first read her stories, I was so excited by how simply and elegantly she wrote about neurons, that I started daydreaming about a children’s book on stem cells. I contacted Thomai and asked her whether she wanted to collaborate on a stem cell book. She was very eager, so I wrote the initial script and Thomai used her artistic expertise to visualize my ideas.  Fast forward three months and Thomai has turned my dream into a wonderful book that I can share with my family and friends with kids!

The stem cell book covers the basics, starting with what a stem cell is and then expanding into the different types of stem cells in the body. By the end, kids will understand that they come from embryonic stem cells and that they have adult stem cells in their body that keep them healthy.

Below are a few pages from Think-A-Lot-Tots: Stem Cells and also a short interview where Thomai explains her inspiration behind her children’s book series and her newest edition on stem cells.

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Interview with Author Thomai Dion

Q: Tell us about the mission of your Think-A-Lot-Tots series.

TD: The mission for my “Think-A-Lot-Tots” series is to introduce science education to our youngest thinkers in a fun, approachable and engaging way. My books do not strive to make an expert of the reader; rather, they provide an overview of a seemingly abstract and advanced scientific concept otherwise reserved for “older children” in an effort to show that babies, toddlers and younger kids can not only retain but also enjoy these same topics. My books focus on building scientific vocabulary, promoting STEM education at a very young age and sparking a love of learning as soon as possible.

Q: How did you get interested in writing children’s books about science?

TD: It was my son’s questions about the world around him that made me want to teach him as much as I could about all that I could. Similar to other children, several of his questions would revolve around topics such as why the sky is blue and why the grass is green. He has also pleasantly surprised me with several very insightful inquiries such as why do “tall trees” lose their leaves but pines trees do not, as well as “how do my eyes see?”. His natural inclination to ask “why” coupled with an insatiable desire to learn inspired me to teach him about science-focused concepts beyond what is readily seen such as the cell, the neuron and microorganisms. I created my first book as a helpful way for him and I to talk about topics like the cell, and I thought since I was making this available to my family, I may as well make it available to others. As such, my first book was created and 4 others have followed with a 5th nearly finished.

Q: Why were you inspired to write a book about stem cells?

TD: My first children’s science book focused on the parts of the cell, providing an overview of the cell membrane, the nucleus, mitochondria and others. My second book focused on the neuron, which discussed not only its different parts but also its special function within our bodies. I found that I enjoyed not only talking about what a cell or neuron was but also why it was important, and so I began thinking about what other ideas I could write about in this manner.

I am a pharmacist by trade and although familiar with stem cells, I was not initially as knowledgeable as I would have liked to be about what their function was within the body, what types of work were currently being done with regards to their research, and what a significant impact they could have on science and medicine. I learned more about all of this as I connected with folks within the field who focused on stem cell research, and only then did I realize how important it was for not only myself to understand stem cells but also our future big thinkers.

I was thrilled when you reached out to me with the idea of writing a book about stem cells and am so thankful for the guidance and expertise you provided with the creation of “Think-A-Lot-Tots: Stem Cells”. My little one will be 4-years-old soon and we’ve read the book together several times. To hear a child want to talk about and exclaim “stem cells!” before they have even begun elementary school is so wonderful!

Q: What other types of science books are you planning to write?

TD: I admittedly have an entire list of topics that I’d like to write about for children’s STEM education. As a medical professional, most of these topics can be found within biology, anatomy and physiology, although I do have some ideas that introduce concepts within chemistry and other areas as well. I am a few days away from officially releasing a STEM coloring book and it would be a very exciting area to explore further with additional coloring and activity books in the future. I also currently have a children’s notebook available that outlines the steps found within the scientific method and I’d love to continue creating hands-on learning tools in addition to read-along books.

Q: What are your insights for the best ways to teach young kids science?

TD: I think we vastly underestimate our children’s ability to learn about their world. Provided the child has an interest in learning about a topic, I don’t see any limitation in explaining the facets of that topics or introducing the terminology typically associated with its discussion. I truly believe there is no difference between teaching a child the word “ball” and the word “nucleus”; rather, it builds familiarity with the term and could even be associated with enjoyable memories if presented in a fun and engaging way.

Similarly to teaching about scientific terminology, science as a whole does not have to be limited to an academic setting and only after a certain age. In reality, children are naturally-born scientists, eager to inquire about any and everything around them from the very beginning of their childhood. I recently wrote an article discussing this concept that was published in Ar Magazine entitled “The Science of Why and its Impact on Children’s Learning”.

In summary and to quote part of this article, I note that “My son and I talk together constantly throughout the day about his observations, what he thinks of this leaf or that rock. I also read to him daily either the books that I created myself as well as those from other talented authors and illustrators. To hinder my child’s natural aptitude towards science would be to mute his interest in the world around him. More simply stated, my brushing-off his questions would stifle his drive to learn. In my humble opinion, I cannot bring myself to do that.” In short, I would say the best ways to teach young kids about science would be to: Talk together. Talk often. Talk about it all.


You can find Thomai’s Think-A-Lot-Tots science books on Amazon and learn more about her quest to educate young minds on her website.

Here’s a Fun Lab Tour Video Contest for Scientists

Scientists are often stereotyped as serious, focused individuals who spend most of their time pursuing their science with little time for anything else. Their research often is complex and hard for non-scientists to wrap their minds around. I’ve often heard my friends describe to me what they thought I did every day when I was in the lab. It was like a science fantasy story involving beakers full of brightly colored chemicals, explosions, and at the end, a cure for Parkinson’s disease…

But I am going to tell you a little known secret: scientists are normal people like everyone else. They aren’t magicians with special powers, and they know how to have fun while doing their research. The problem is that the public doesn’t know this because they don’t have the opportunity to visit a research laboratory and see scientists in action.

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Paul Knoepfler

UC Davis Professor Paul Knoepfler is addressing this issue with his new lab tour video contest that he recently announced on his blog, The Niche. He’s asking scientists to make short videos of their daily lives in the lab and post them on Twitter with the hashtag #labvideocontest. The winner will receive a cash prize and “free PR for their lab”. The videos can be serious or funny, but Paul asks contestants to use their imagination and think out of the box.

This contest will not only be a fun way for scientists to talk about their research and what they do every day, but it will also benefit the public who will get an inside view of what it’s like to be a scientist. The goal of science communications is to make science relatable to everyone, and this video contest on social media is a great example of new ways that scientists can connect with the public and make science more approachable.

You scientists out there can learn more about Paul’s contest and how to participate on his blog. The deadline to submit lab videos is March 15th, so you better get to work!

And if you need a place to start, watch our recent video featuring the McDevitt lab, a stem cell bioengineering lab at the Gladstone Institutes.

Listen Up: A stem cell-based solution for hearing loss

Can you hear me now?

If you’re old enough, you probably recognize this phrase from an early 2000’s Verizon Wireless commercial where the company claims to be “the nation’s largest, most reliable wireless network”. However, no matter how hard wireless companies like Verizon try, there are still dead zones where cell phone reception is zilch and you can’t in fact hear me now.

This cell phone coverage is a good analogy for the 5% of the world population, or 360 million people, that suffer from hearing loss. There are many causes for hearing loss including genetic predispositions, birth defects, constant exposure to loud noises, infectious diseases, certain drugs, ear infections and aging. There is no cure that fully restores hearing, but patients can benefit from hearing aids, cochlear implants and other hearing devices.

But listen to this. A new stem cell-based technique developed by the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary may restore hearing in patients with hearing loss. The team discovered that stem cells in the inner ear can be manipulated in a culture dish to expand and develop into large quantities of cochlear hair cells, which make it possible for your brain to detect sound. Their work was published this week in the journal Cell Reports.

In a previous study, the Boston team found that stem cells in the inner ears of mice could be directly converted into cochlear hair cells, but they weren’t able to generate enough hair cells to fully restore hearing in these mice. Building on this work, the team isolated these stem cells, which express a protein called LGR5, and developed an augmentation technique consisting of drugs and growth factors to expand these stem cells and then specialize them into larger populations of hair cells.

A new technique converts stems cells into hair cells. Image credit Will McLean, Albert Edge, Massachusetts Eye and Ear

A new technique converts stems cells into hair cells. Image credit Will McLean, Albert Edge, Massachusetts Eye and Ear.

From a single mouse cochlea, they made more than 11,500 hair cells using their new augmentation method, which is more than 50 times the number of hair cells they made using a more basic method.

In a news release, senior author on the study, Dr. Albert Edge, explained the importance of their findings for patients with hearing loss:

Albert Edge

Albert Edge

“We have shown that we can expand Lgr5-expressing cells to differentiate into hair cells in high yield, which opens the door for drug discovery for hearing. We hope that by stimulating these cells to divide and differentiate that we will improve on our previous results in restoring hearing. With this knowledge, we can make better shots on goal, which is critical for repairing damaged ears. We have identified the cells of interest and have identified the pathways and drugs to target to improve on previous results. These clues may lead us closer to finding drugs that could treat hearing loss in adults.”

Wishing You and Your Stem Cells a Happy Valentine’s Day!

cirm-valentines-day

Roses are Red, 

Violets are Blue,

 Let’s thank pluripotent stem cells,

For making humans like me and you

Happy Valentine’s Day from me and everyone at CIRM! Today, we are celebrating this day of love by sending our warmest wishes to you our readers. We’re grateful for your interest in learning more about stem cells and your steadfast support for the advancement of stem cell research.

We also want to wish a Happy Valentine’s Day to your stem cells, yes that’s right the stem cells you have in your body. Without pluripotent stem cells, which are embryonic cells that generate all the cells in your body, humans wouldn’t exist. And without adult stem cells, which live in your tissues and organs, we wouldn’t have healthy, functioning bodies.

So, as you’re wishing your loved ones, friends, and colleagues a Happy Valentine’s Day, take a moment to thank your body and the stem cells living in it for keeping you alive.

I’ll leave you with a few Valentine’s Day themed stem cell blogs for you to enjoy. Have a wonderful day!


Valentine’s Day Themed Blogs:

1) Toronto Scientists Have an Affair with the Heart by OIRMexpression

Ventricular heart muscle cells. Image courtesy of Dr. Michael Laflamme

Ventricular heart muscle cells. Image courtesy of Dr. Michael Laflamme

2) A Cardiac Love Triangle: How Transcription Factors Interact to Make a Heart by the Stem Cellar

© Gladstone Institutes photo credit: Kim Cordes / Gladstone Institute Lay Description: In this image, human embryonic stem cells have been differentiated into cardiomyocytes, or heart muscle cells, and stained to show the expression of cardiac Troponin T (red), a protein that helps cardiomyocytes to contract, and cell nuclei (blue). Scientific Description: Cultured human iPSCs reprogrammed into CMs. Stain for cTnT (red), and DAPI (blue). Original caption: cardiomyocytes.tif

Heart cells made from human induced pluripotent stem cells. © Gladstone Institutes
photo credit: Kim Cordes / Gladstone Institute

3) Stem Cells on Valentine’s Day: Update on Cardiac Regenerative Medicine by Paul Knoepfler on the Niche Blog

4) Hope For Broken Hearts this Valentine’s Day – a Clinical Trial to Repair the Damage by the Stem Cellar


Special thanks to Samantha Yammine for letting us her her “Icy Astrocytes” photo in our Valentine’s Day graphic.

Stem Cell Stories That Caught our Eye: Making blood and muscle from stem cells and helping students realize their “pluripotential”

Stem cells offer new drug for blood diseases. A new treatment for blood disorders might be in the works thanks to a stem cell-based study out of Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s hospital. Their study was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

The teams made induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from the skin of patients with a rare blood disorder called Diamond-Blackfan anemia (DBA) – a bone marrow disease that prevents new blood cells from forming. iPSCs from DBA patients were then specialized into blood progenitor cells, the precursors to blood cells. However, these precursor cells were incapable of forming red blood cells in a dish like normal precursors do.

Red blood cells were successfully made via induced pluripotent stem cells from a Diamond-Blackfan anemia patient. Image: Daley lab, Boston Children’s

Red blood cells were successfully made via induced pluripotent stem cells from a Diamond-Blackfan anemia patient. Image: Daley lab, Boston Children’s

The blood progenitor cells from DBA patients were then used to screen a library of compounds to identify drugs that could get the DBA progenitor cells to develop into red blood cells. They found a compound called SMER28 that had this very effect on progenitor cells in a dish. When the compound was tested in zebrafish and mouse models of DBA, the researchers observed an increase in red blood cell production and a reduction of anemia symptoms.

Getting pluripotent stem cells like iPSCs to turn into blood progenitor cells and expand these cells into a population large enough for drug screening has not been an easy task for stem cell researchers.

Co-first author on the study, Sergei Doulatov, explained in a press release, “iPS cells have been hard to instruct when it comes to making blood. This is the first time iPS cells have been used to identify a drug to treat a blood disorder.”

In the future, the researchers will pursue the questions of why and how SMER28 boosts red blood cell generation. Further work will be done to determine whether this drug will be a useful treatment for DBA patients and other blood disorders.

 

Students realize their “pluripotential”. In last week’s stem cell stories, I gave a preview about an exciting stem cell “Day of Discovery” hosted by USC Stem Cell in southern California. The event happened this past Saturday. Over 500 local middle and high school students attended the event and participated in lab tours, poster sessions, and a career resource fair. Throughout the day, they were engaged by scientists and educators about stem cell science through interactive games, including the stem cell edition of Family Feud and a stem cell smartphone videogame developed by USC graduate students.

In a USC press release, Rohit Varma, dean of the Keck School of Medicine of USC, emphasized the importance of exposing young students to research and scientific careers.

“It was a true joy to welcome the middle and high school students from our neighboring communities in Boyle Heights, El Sereno, Lincoln Heights, the San Gabriel Valley and throughout Los Angeles. This bright young generation brings tremendous potential to their future pursuits in biotechnology and beyond.”

Maria Elena Kennedy, a consultant to the Bassett Unified School District, added, “The exposure to the Keck School of Medicine of USC is invaluable for the students. Our students come from a Title I School District, and they don’t often have the opportunity to come to a campus like the Keck School of Medicine.”

The day was a huge success with students posting photos of their experiences on social media and enthusiastically writing messages like “stem cells are our future” and “USC is my goal”. One high school student acknowledged the opportunity that this day offers to students, “California currently has biotechnology as the biggest growing sector. Right now, it’s really important that students are visiting labs and learning more about the industry, so they can potentially see where they’re going with their lives and careers.”

You can read more about USC’s Stem Cell Day of Discovery here. Below are a few pictures from the event courtesy of David Sprague and USC.

Students have fun with robots representing osteoblast and osteoclast cells at the Stem Cell Day of Discovery event held at the USC Health Sciences Campus in Los Angeles, CA. February 4th, 2017. The event encourages students to learn more about STEM opportunities, including stem cell study and biotech, and helps demystify the fields and encourage student engagement. Photo by David Sprague

Students have fun with robots representing osteoblast and osteoclast cells at the USC Stem Cell Day of Discovery. Photo by David Sprague

Dr. Francesca Mariana shows off a mouse skeleton that has been dyed to show bones and cartilage at the Stem Cell Day of Discovery event held at the USC Health Sciences Campus in Los Angeles, CA. February 4th, 2017. The event encourages students to learn more about STEM opportunities, including stem cell study and biotech, and helps demystify the fields and encourage student engagement. Photo by David Sprague

Dr. Francesca Mariana shows off a mouse skeleton that has been dyed to show bones and cartilage. Photo by David Sprague

USC masters student Shantae Thornton shows students how cells are held in long term cold storage tanks at -195 celsius at the Stem Cell Day of Discovery event held at the USC Health Sciences Campus in Los Angeles, CA. February 4th, 2017. The event encourages students to learn more about STEM opportunities, including stem cell study and biotech, and helps demystify the fields and encourage student engagement. Photo by David Sprague

USC masters student Shantae Thornton shows students how cells are held in long term cold storage tanks at -195 celsius. Photo by David Sprague

Genesis Archila, left, and Jasmine Archila get their picture taken at the Stem Cell Day of Discovery event held at the USC Health Sciences Campus in Los Angeles, CA. February 4th, 2017. The event encourages students to learn more about STEM opportunities, including stem cell study and biotech, and helps demystify the fields and encourage student engagement. Photo by David Sprague

Genesis Archila, left, and Jasmine Archila get their picture taken at the USC Stem Cell Day of Discovery. Photo by David Sprague

New stem cell recipes for making muscle: new inroads to study muscular dystrophy (Todd Dubnicoff)

Embryonic stem cells are amazing because scientists can change or specialize them into virtually any cell type. But it’s a lot easier said than done. Researchers essentially need to mimic the process of embryo development in a petri dish by adding the right combination of factors to the stem cells in just the right order at just the right time to obtain a desired type of cell.

Making human muscle tissue from embryonic stem cells has proven to be a challenge. The development of muscle, as well as cartilage and bone, are well characterized and known to form from an embryonic structure called a somite. Researches have even been successful working out the conditions for making somites from animal stem cells. But those recipes didn’t work well with human stem cells.

Now, a team of researchers at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA has overcome this roadblock by carrying out a systematic approach using human tissue. As described in Cell Reports, the scientists isolated somites from early human embryos and studied their gene activity. By comparing somites that were just beginning to emerge with fully formed somites, the researchers pinpointed differences in gene activity patterns. With this data in hand, the team added factors to the cells that were known to affect the activity of those genes. Through some trial and error, they produced a recipe – different than those used in animal cells – that could convert 90 percent of the human stem cells into somites in only four days. Those somites could then readily transform into muscle or bone or cartilage.

This new method for making human muscle will be critical for the lab’s goal to develop therapies for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, an incurable muscle wasting disease that strikes young boys and is usually fatal by their 20’s.

The new protocol turned 90 percent of human pluripotent stem cells into somite cells in just four days; those somite cells then generated (left to right) cartilage, bone and muscle cells.  Image: April Pyle Lab/UCLA

The new protocol turned 90 percent of human pluripotent stem cells into somite cells in just four days; those somite cells then generated (left to right) cartilage, bone and muscle cells. Image: April Pyle Lab/UCLA

Results are in: The Winners of our 2017 #StemCellResolution Campaign

We asked and you answered! In January, we launched our first Stem Cell Resolution campaign to raise awareness about the importance of stem cell research. We challenged scientists, students, institutes and the public to make a #StemCellResolution and share it on social media.

The goal of our campaign was to start a larger conversation about why stem cell research is important not just to advance science but to develop cures for diseases that currently have none.

Our campaign ran for the month of January, and we had global participation on multiple social media platforms including Twitter, Instagram, videos and blogs. Some resolutions involved answering important research questions while others involved empowering the public to pursue and understand scientific evidence to make their own informed decisions about the benefits of stem cell treatments for treating disease.

I was thoroughly impressed with everyone’s enthusiasm towards supporting and sharing this campaign that I plan to hold it again next year. But for now, I’ll announce the winners of our 2017 #StemCellResolution campaign. We picked the most inspiring resolution for each social media category and a few honorable mentions. The winner of each category will receive CIRM Stem Cell Champions t-shirts.

You can view the full list of this year’s stem cell resolutions on our Storify.


Twitter

Winner: Hamideh Emrani (@HamidehEmrani)

Hamideh is a science and technology communicator and the founder of Emrani Communications. 

Honorable Mention: Christine Liu (@Christineliuart)

Christine is a neuroscience phd student at UC Berkeley and a science communicator and artist.

Instagram

Winner: Pedro Soria Jr. (@shadowtype)

Pedro is a former CIRM Bridges student who is conducting stem cell research in neural regeneration at Western University in Southern California.

My Stem Cell Resolution for 2017 is to create a social media page dedicated to educating, enlightening and disseminating information about past, current, and future stem cell related studies to the general public, as well as those in science, in order to bring to light the importance of stem cell research. My objective is to bring people together regardless of whether or not they Originate from the natural sciences and spark an interest in this emerging field. Coming from a family where I'm first generation Mexican American and the only scientist has shown me the importance of communication amongst those that have little knowledge of the natural world especially people that come from countries that aren't scientifically advanced. Both my parents are born and raised in Michoacan, Mexico, in a small mountain town called Ario de Rosales. Back in my parents day, most people were farmers that worked from sun rise to sunset in order to feed and provide for their families. Naturally, they had little time for education because of the need to survive but had a positive work ethic, which I was lucky to inherit. My parents came to America for an opportunity to improve their situations and provide for themselves and families back home. They worked so hard to obtain what they have and to give me the chance they never had, which I'm so deeply grateful for each and every day of my life!! I had always felt destined for more than mediocre and enjoy taking on challenges to improve myself mentally, physically and spiritually. As a stem cell scientist, it is my responsibility to share my knowledge with everyone I encounter in order to bring change to this world. I wouldn't be where I am if it weren't for the support of my family, friends, professors, colleagues and of course #CIRM . Please join me on this journey and spread the word to anyone that will listen because we're all on this ride together in one way or another. That is my #stemcellresolution #soriaclan #bringingchange #cellculture Look out for my social media page #cellculture for all your stem cell info and check out the @cirm_stemcells to see what this beautiful institute is doing this year!!! #StemCellResolution

A post shared by Pedro Soria Jr. (@shadowtype) on

Video

Winner: Samantha Yammine (@SamanthaZY)

Samantha Yammine is a science communicator and a PhD candidate in Dr. Derek van der Kooy’s lab at the University of Toronto. You can learn more about Sam and her research on her website. She also recently wrote a guest blog for CIRM about a Keystone stem cell conference that you can find here.

Honorable Mentions: Paul Knoepfler (@pknoepfler)

Paul is a biomedical scientist at UC Davis, a science writer, advocate, and cancer survivor. He writes a popular stem cell blog called the Niche.

Honorable Mention: Catia B (@apulgarita)

Catia is a PhD student at MIT and is conducting research on programming & stem cells. She is originally from Portugal and has a personal blog about traveling and the PhD lifestyle.

Honorable Mention: Gladstone trainees (@Gladstone_GO)

Gladstone students and postdocs stepped up to the challenge and filmed stem cell resolutions about their research.

Blog

Winner: Sophie Arthur (@SophArthur)

Soph is a PhD student in Southampton, K studying embryonic stem cell metabolism. Her goal is to find ways to maintain the pluripotent quality of stem cells. She has a personal science communications blog called Soph Talks Science.

 An excerpt from Soph’s blog is below. I highly recommend reading the entire piece as it is very engaging and inspiring!

“For my Stem Cell Resolution – I couldn’t decide on one, so instead, I’ve made 4! Oops!

First, I want to raise awareness that stem cell biology is as important as stem cell treatments! There is lots of hype over stem cell treatments across the globe, but I want to stress that there are only a handful that have actually been approved! I could very well be biased as I’m studying stem cells and their biological mechanisms that exist normally in our bodies – but I want to stress the importance of this work. Simple biology – as I think it will hold the key to all the future stem cell medicine! Once we know how stem cells work in our bodies we can exploit that to make the treatments, or even learn more about our normal development!

 Honorable Mention: Stacey Johnson (@msstaceyerin)

Stacey is the Director of Communications and Marketing for CCRM, the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine in Canada. She also is a regular contributor to CCRM’s Signals Blog.

“Since I’m not a scientist, a student or a patient, but I regularly communicate about stem cells to raise awareness and educate the public, my #stemcellresolution is to use this forum to spread the news – what I do best – about this fun and important challenge.”

Read Stacey’s full blog here.


 Thank you and see you next year!

Science communications is a vital tool that scientists and science enthusiasts need to leverage now more than ever to support stem cell research. Speaking out through social media or blogs is a great way to do this, and I want to congratulate all those that participated this year. I’m grateful for your support!

We look forward to doing this again next year and this time, you’ll have an entire year to ponder your next #StemCellResolution.