Creativity sparks a bright future for science

When some people want to see the future they use a crystal ball. Others use tarot cards or runes. But when anyone at CIRM wants to see the future all we have to do is look into the faces of the students in our Creativity program.

Creativity students 2015 with program director Dr. Mani Vessal (front & center with tie)

Creativity students 2015 with program director Dr. Mani Vessal (front & center with tie)

Over the past three years the Creativity program has given some 220 California high school students a chance to spend the summer working in a world-class stem cell research facility. And when I say work, I mean work. They are required to attend lectures, grow their own stem cells, and do experiments. In short, they are expected to do what all the other scientists in the lab do. In return they get a great experience, and a modest stipend for their effort. At the end they produce papers on their work with titles like:

  • Notch Signaling as a Possible Regulator of Mesenchymal Stromal Cell Differentiation in the Hematopoietic Stem Cell Niche
  • RNA Splicing Factor ZRSR2 in Human Erythroleukemia and Stem Cells

We also ask the students to either write a blog or create a video about their experiences over the summer. Many do both. We’ll come back to the video portion later this week. The blogs make for a great read because they chart the students as they progress from knowing little if anything about stem cells, to being quite proficient at working with them. And all in just 8 weeks. One of the hardest parts of our job is choosing the best blog. For example Alice Lin, part of the City of Hope program, got an honorable mention for her blog that was a “diary” written by an embryonic stem cell. Here’s a small sample of her approach:

‘Also, this is NOT YOUR TYPICAL LAB JOURNAL ENTRY. It’s an autobiography chronicling my life. That way, when the stem cell controversy cools down, the general public can get a FIRST HAND ACCOUNT of what we do. This blog is going to rack up some serious views someday. Until then, I’m attached to my colony and the plate.’

Ryan Hale, part of the Scripps team, wrote about how the experience taught him to think like a scientist:

‘One day, after performing an experiment, our mentor asked us the reason behind our experiment. He wasn’t asking us about the experimental procedure or quizzing us on the pre-reading packet, he wanted us to understand the thought process a researcher would go through to actually think up such an experiment… Our mentor stressed how important it is to be creative, inquisitive, and critical if one wants to become a successful researcher.’

Selena Zhang

Selena Zhang

The winner was Selena Zhang, also part of the City of Hope team. She writes about her experiences in the lab, learning the ropes, getting to understand the technology and language of science. But it’s her closing paragraph that sealed the deal for us. In a few short sentences she manages to capture the romance, the mystery and the magic of science. And we’re also happy to say that this program is coming back next year, and the year after that, for five more years. Our Board has just approved renewed funding. The name of the program is changing, it will be called SPARK, but the essence will remain the same. Giving young students a glimpse at a future in science. You don’t need a crystal ball to know that with these students the future is bright. Here’s Selena’s winning blog:

My very own lab coat. It was a lot to live up to, my freshly laundered lab coat with the City of Hope logo. Looking around the lab, I was nervous and excited to start my very first day. There were papers to read and meetings with my mentor to hear about my project. I was starstruck, as I learned that I would be working with induced pluripotent stem cells, Alzheimer’s disease, and CRISPR. Terms that seemed to only exist in textbooks and science magazines that I lovingly read at the library were suddenly alive to me. Although, embarrassingly enough, the only thing that came to mind when my mentor mentioned CRISPR was a salad crisper. Fairly certain that she was a) speaking about something else and b) that I needed to eat more for breakfast, I asked her what that was. It turned out that CRISPR was a new genome editing tool we could use to create isogenic lines to study the independent effects of each allele of the APOE gene that is the most significant risk factor for Alzheimer’s. We would do this by converting a patient and wild-type fibroblast into induced pluripotent stem cells. From this, we would edit a normal allele into the patient’s cell for rescue and the mutated allele in the wild-type cell for insertion, respectively. We would eventually differentiate these cells into neurons and astrocytes to study how the change of this allele can impact neural interaction. This was real science in progress, not enshrined in a textbook, but free, fluid, and vibrant. I slowly grew into my own independence around the lab. I found myself more confident and emotionally invested with each experiment, every immunostaining and PCR. Science, for all of its realism, had always seemed like the unimaginable fantasy to me. Through this opportunity, science has become more tangible, grounded in unglamorous details: hard work and deadlines, mistakes and mishaps, long lab meetings and missed lunches. Yet, that has only made me more confident that I want to pursue science. Now, I’m embracing a reality, one that gives me something worth striving for. In fact, I am very fortunate that my project has encountered numerous obstacles. My initial response to these problems was and still is a lot less Zen and a lot more panic-driven. But I’ve slowly come to realize the beauty of the troubleshooting process for progress. My project has been an emotional rollercoaster, as our rescue cell line met success, but couldn’t advance to the next stage. Our insertion cell line appeared to have incorporated the mutation, but it turned out it only incorporated one allele. It’s been a process of finding the balance between defending our ideas and accepting new ones, the border between defending and defensiveness. My curiosity and drive to improve, to understand, to conquer the unknown is learning to coexist with the need for patience and flexibility No matter how solid our theory should have been, reality is fickle and all the more interesting for it. I thought science was all about doubt and skepticism, questioning everything. Through this internship, I’ve learned that there’s also a surprising amount of faith, the faith to accept any setbacks as part of the discovery process. I thought I loved science before because I loved how enough facts could help me make sense of things. But through this internship in the lab, I’m learning to love a larger part of science, which is not only loving knowledge, but also loving not knowing, loving discovery for all of its uncertainty and perfect imperfections. I’m learning to grow into my lab coat, and hopefully, to find my place in the field of science.

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Using stem cells to mend a broken heart and winning $6,000 to boot

It’s no secret that the members of the CIRM blog team are all big fans of scientists who are good public communicators. We feel that the more scientists talk about their research, the better the public will understand the importance of science and it’s ability to help them or someone they love.

Grad Slam winner, Ashley Fong from UC Irvine

Grad Slam winner, Ashley Fong from UC Irvine

So on Monday when University of California, Irvine researcher Ashley Fong won the $6,000 top prize in the Grad Slam competition for the terrific explanation of her work in using stem cells to treat heart disease, it was doubly gratifying. You see, not only is Ashley a great communicator, but she’s also someone we have helped support in her career.

The Grad Slam is an “elevator pitch” competition sponsored by the University of California Office of the President. Ten graduate students from across the UC system were given three minutes to explain their work to a live audience, using everyday language and avoiding jargon or technical lingo.

All the students were good. Ashley was great. Want proof? Here you go (Ashley comes on at 39.20 into the video.)

She says she discovered her passion for stem cell research thanks to a CIRM-funded summer undergraduate internship. Now she is working in the lab of Chris Hughes at UCI.

In a UCI News story about the competition Frances Leslie, dean of the Graduate Division who hosted the campus-level competition in April, said:

“It’s important for graduate students to explain their research to the general public in ways that are easy to understand. And it’s also critical for the taxpayers of California to see the benefits of their support of graduate education.”

We couldn’t have put it any better.

Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: “Let it Grow” Goes Viral, Stroke Pilot Study, The Bowels of Human Stem Cells, Tumor ‘Safety Lock.’

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.

“Let it Grow” Goes Viral (and National!): Last week on The Stem Cellar we shared one of our favorite student videos from our annual Creativity Program. The video, a parody of the hit song from the movie Frozen, highlighted the outstanding creativity of a group of high school students from City of Hope in Los Angeles. And now, the song has made a splash nationwide—with coverage from ABC 7 Bay Area and even NBC New York!

Students from the City of Hope practice their routine for the group video

Students from the City of Hope practice their routine for the group video

Watch the full video on our YouTube page.

Stroke Pilot Study Shows Promise. Researchers at Imperial College London are currently testing whether stem cells extracted from a patient’s bone marrow can reverse the after effects of a stroke.

Reporting in this week’s Stem Cells Translational Medicine the team, lead by Dr. Soma Banjeree, describe their pilot study in which they collect a type of bone marrow stem cells called CD34+ cells. These cells can give rise to cells that make up the blood and the blood vessel lining. Earlier research suggested that treating stroke victims with these cells can improve recovery after a stroke—not because they replace the brain cells lost during a stroke, but because they release a chemical that triggers brain cells to grow. So the team decided to take the next step with a pilot study of five individuals.

As reported in a recent news release, this initial pilot study was only designed to test the safety of the procedure. But in a surprising twist, all patients in the study also showed significant improvement over a period of six months post-treatment. Even more astonishing, three of the patients (who had suffered one of the most severe forms of stroke) were living assistance-free. But since the first six months after injury is a time when many patients see improved function, these results need to be tested in a controlled trial where not all patients receive the cells

Immediate next steps include using advancing imaging techniques to more closely monitor what exactly happens in the brain after the patients are treated.

Want to learn more about using stem cells to treat stroke? Check out our Stroke Fact Sheet.

Deep in the Bowels of Stem Cell Behavior. Another research advance from UK scientists—this time at Queen Mary University of London researchers—announces important new insight into the behavior of adult stem cells that reside in the human gastro-intestinal tract (which includes the stomach and intestines). As described in a news release, this study, which examined the stem cells in the bowels of healthy individuals, as well as cells from early-stage tumors, points to key differences in their behaviors. The results, published this week in the journal Cell Reports, point to a potential link between stem cell behavior and the development of some forms of cancer.

By measuring the timing and frequency of mutations as they occur over time in aging stem cells, the research team, led by senior author Dr. Trevor Graham, found a key difference in stem cell behaviors between healthy individuals, and those with tumors.

In the healthy bowel, there is a relative stasis in the number of stem cells at any given time. But in cancer, that delicate balance—called a ‘stem cell niche’—appears to get thrown out of whack. There appears to be an increased number of cells, paired with more intense competition. And while these results are preliminary, they mark the first time this complex stem cell behavior has been studied in humans. According to Graham:

“Unearthing how stem cells behave within the human bowel is a big step forward for stem cell research. We now want to use the methods developed in this study to understand how stem cells behave inside bowel cancer, so we can increase our understanding of how bowel cancer grows. This will hopefully shed more light on how we can prevent bowel cancer—the fourth most common cancer in the UK.”

Finding the ‘Safety Lock’ Against Tumor Growth. It’s one of the greatest risks when transplanting stem cells: the possibility that the transplanted cells will grow out of control and form tumors.

But now, scientists from Keio University School of Medicine in Japan have devised an ingenious method that could negate this risk.

Reporting in the latest issue of Cell Transplantation and summarized in a news release, Dr. Masaya Nakamura and his team describe how they transplanted stem cells into the spinal columns of laboratory mice.

And here’s where they switched things up. During the transplantation itself, all mice were receiving immunosuppressant drugs. But then they halted the immunosuppressants in half the mice post-transplantation.

Withdrawing the drugs post-transplantation, according to the team’s findings, had the interesting effect of eliminating the tumor risk, as compared to the group who remained on the drugs. Confirmed with bioluminescent imaging that tracked the implanted cells in both sets of mice, these findings suggest that it in fact may be possible to finely tweak the body’s immune response after stem-cell transplantation.

Want to learn more about stem cells and tumor risk? Check out this recent video from CIRM Grantee Dr. Paul Knoepfler: Paul Knoepfler Talks About the Tendency of Embryonic Stem Cells to Form Tumors.

CIRM Creativity Student Hanan Sinada’s ‘Extraordinary’ Journey as a Budding Scientist

This summer we’re sponsoring high school interns in stem cell labs throughout California as part of our annual Creativity Program. We asked those students to share their experiences through blog posts and videos.

Today, we hear from Hanan Sinada, who has been busy at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco.

Extraordinary. That is the word I would use to describe my time here at Gladstone. This summer I have been an intern at the Gladstone Institute of Neurology, studying microglia. The brain has two main types of cells. Those cells are neurons and glial cells. Glia makes ninety percent of the cells in your brain. Although the word “glia” is derived from the Greek word meaning “glue”, glia cells are more like the support system that surround the neurons in the brain. Many people have not heard of glial cells because they are the dark matter of the brain and not involved in synaptic transition. However, glial cells have many significant functions in the central nervous system (CNS). Their main functions are to supply oxygen and nutrients to the neurons, hold neurons in place, destroy infectious agents, eliminate dead cells, and provide insulation (myelin) to neurons.

Hanan Sinada with her mentor, Gladstone Postdoctoral Researcher Dr. Grietje Krabbe

Hanan Sinada with her mentor, Gladstone Postdoctoral Researcher Dr. Grietje Krabbe

There are three main types of glial cells: microglia, astrocytes, and oligodendrocytes. In my research we focus specifically on microglial cells. Microglia only make up 10-15 percent of the total glia population. Microglia serve as the central nervous system’s macrophages. One function of microglia is to act as antigen presenting cells. Two other roles of the microglia are phagocytosis and cytotoxicity. In cytotoxicity, microglia release cytotoxic substances such as Nitric Oxide (NO) or hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), to damage neurons that have been infected. This leads to cell death. Microglia’s main function is to maintain homeostasis. As a result, microglia are constantly scavenging for apoptotic cells, infectious agents, or any foreign material. Microglia are the main orchestrators of the inflammatory response in the central nervous system (CNS). When an injury occurs in the spinal cord or the brain, microglia release cytokines that cause inflammation in that given area.

In my research we look closely at microglia because they are related to many neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. My lab started to question about what would happen if we annihilated all the microglia in the brain. Would it decrease the possibility of avoiding the development of those diseases? So we gave wild type mice a drug that depleted all the microglia in the brain, and surprisingly enough the microglia repopulated the brain rapidly after a couple of days. By doing immunohistochemistry and using certain markers, I was able to find where this new microglia-like cell was coming from. From previous studies we already know that this new microglia is not from the periphery. Monocytes cannot cross the blood brain barrier to replace the microglia. We believe that this new microglia is coming from progenitor cell (a type of stem cell). However, we do not know which cell type is giving rise to this new microglia population.

Before starting my internship I did not know that it was going to be the most amazing and interesting learning experience I have ever had in my life. Although every now and then I would have a science crisis, such as having to change antibody because a certain staining would not work, I am so happy and lucky to be doing this cutting edge research. Not only did I learn so much but I am proud to say that I have contributed to the future of science.

Creativity Program Students Reach New Heights with Stem Cell-Themed Rendition of “Let it Go”

This summer we’re sponsoring high school interns in stem cell labs throughout California as part of our annual Creativity Program. We asked those students to share their experiences through blog posts, photos and videos.

Today, we bring you an outstanding group video from CIRM Interns at City of Hope in Los Angeles, with their own special version of the popular song, “Let it Go” from the movie Frozen.

These students have without a doubt showcased their extensive scientific knowledge in one of the most creative ways we at CIRM have ever seen!

Without further ado, we present “Let it Grow.”

CIRM Creativity Program: Interns Document their Experiences, One Photo at a Time

This summer we’re sponsoring high school interns in stem cell labs throughout California as part of our annual Creativity Program. We asked those students to share their experiences through blog posts, videos and on Instagram.

Today, we take a look at some of the top Instagram photos from our students. Want to take a peak at the rest? Search for the #CIRMCreativityLab hashtag on your Instagram app!

Megan Handley, a Creativity student in the Denise Montell lab at UCSB, snapped this image of a Drosophila ovariole(egg string) taken in fluorescence microscopy. The blue is DAPI(stains nucleus, and the green is anti-HTs(stains membranes).

Megan Handley, a Creativity student in the Denise Montell lab at UCSB, snapped this image of a Drosophila ovariole(egg string) taken in fluorescence microscopy. The blue is DAPI(stains nucleus, and the green is anti-HTs(stains membranes). [Credit: Megan Handley]

Students from the City of Hope practice their routine for the group video

Students from the City of Hope practice their routine for the group video[Credit: Grace Lo]

Emma Cruisenberry, an intern in the Rothman Lab at UCSB, snapped these two photos C. elegans—the top under normal conditions, versus C. elegans expressing the GFP marker under UV light in the intestinal cells. [Credit: Emma Cruisenberry]

Emma Cruisenberry, an intern in the Rothman Lab at UCSB, snapped these two photos C. elegans—the top under normal conditions, versus C. elegans expressing the GFP marker under UV light in the intestinal cells. [Credit: Emma Cruisenberry]

CIRM Creativity Student Long Nguyen Learns First-Hand about the Value of Scientific Research

This summer we’re sponsoring high school interns in stem cell labs throughout California as part of our annual Creativity Program. We asked those students to share their experiences through blog posts and videos.

Today, we hear from Long Nguyen, who has been busy at Stanford University’s Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine.

Summer Reflections

Long Nguyen

It’s been a real pleasure spending the past eight weeks here at Stanford University. When I first walked into Beckman Center on June 9th, I did not know what to expect. There was a crowd of students all waiting, just as I was. I got my lab coat, my notebooks, and my bag. Frankly, I was anxious beyond imagination. At the time, I was still wondering to myself: “How did I get into this program? It’s inexplicable.” Those thoughts vanished as I stepped out of that room three hours later and headed to my workplace. I was confident and ready to start the new experience.

The beloved hood upon which I daringly cultured my cells!

The beloved hood upon which I daringly cultured my cells!

Learning about stem cells has made me more passionate about scientific research. I am glad to have been given this opportunity. Up to this point, I had only been exposed to textbooks upon textbooks—a dull methodology, as many may agree. The only hands-on experience I ever had were agarose gel electrophoresis and transformation of bacteria with an insulin-GFP reporter complex.

My experience here, however, has given me a strong foundation beyond the scope of these. Initially, I could not open a conical tube with one hand, and my pipetting was absolutely horrendous. I could not calculate simple dilutions for my working solutions. I even made the mistake of vacuum-aspirating over half of my cells during the second week. As time progressed, my culturing of stem cells improved considerably and I made few, if no, mistakes. I learned the background, the methodology, and the purpose of my work. These little details proved more important than they seemed, as they gave me a much clearer understanding of my work. Looking back, despite many, many errors, I learned to appreciate the value of science.

An interesting moment before a media change.

An interesting moment before a media change.

Prior to my experience, I had known little about stem cells: they were mentioned briefly in a page of my AP Biology textbook. I only knew that they differentiated into specific cell types to repair the body; there was no mention of iPSCs in the slightest. My knowledge of stem cells now is much more extensive. Regenerative medicine, wound healing, disease treatments—all that can be possible with stem cell research surprised me, to say the least. I have no doubts that this developing field will be a major game changer in the coming decades. The research is definitely something to respect. Being a part of ongoing research made me more aware of the problems that scientists, especially those in medicine, face in their attempts to do something, whether it be to cure scleroderma, to repair damaged neural connections, or to screen drugs with iPSC-derived cells. One thing is for sure: what I do now and what I expose myself to will be critical once I start planning for my future. Thanks go to Stanford’s faculty, SIMR 2014, CIRM, my peers, and my family, all of whom have supported me in my work.

My dear cells!

My dear cells!

CIRM Creativity Program: Training Tomorrow’s Stem Cell Scientists

It’s that time of year once again, when some of the brightest and most motivated high school students across California are given the opportunity to see first-hand what it’s like to perform cutting-edge stem cell research.

Scott Voulgaris, 2014 CIRM Creativity Lab Student

Scott Voulgaris, 2014 CIRM Creativity Lab Student

Called the CIRM Creativity Day Program, this is a fundamental part of our mission to train the next generation of Californian stem cell scientists. Scientists who we hope will one day advance stem cell-based therapies that relieve human suffering from chronic disease and injury.

Offered to high-caliber students of all backgrounds, one of the program’s main goals is to give those who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to participate in cutting-edge biomedical research a taste of what it is like. The eight-to-ten week internship culminates with Creativity Day, an all-day event where each student showcases the results of his or her research project to senior scientists and CIRM staff.

But simply awarding these internships is not enough—just as important is communicating their value to you: policymakers, patient advocates and the public.

So who better to give an inside look into these internships than the students themselves?

Throughout the summer, students will write, photograph and/or film their experiences. You can follow along right here on the CIRM blog as we select occasional posts to share. The students are also already sharing their experiences on Instagram—log in and check out the official hashtag: #CIRMCreativityLab as they document their research progress.

And some students are busily filming creative, fun and informative videos documenting their experiences. When those are complete you’ll be able to view and share them right here on our blog! Want to see what kind of videos last year’s students created? Check out our compilation from 2013.

So stay tuned in the coming days and weeks as we discover up close and personal what it’s like to be a stem-cell scientist and to see the faces of the next generation of researchers who could one day change the world.