Women who have changed, and are changing, the world

The problem with trying to write about something like Women’s History Month is where do you start? Even if you narrow it down to women in science the list is vast.

Marie Curie

I suppose you could always start with Maria Salomea Skłodowska who is better known as Marie Curie. She not only discovered radium and polonium, but she was also the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (in Physics). When she later won another Nobel (in Chemistry) she became the first person ever to win two Nobels and is still the only person ever to win in two different fields. Not a bad place to start.

Agnes Pockels

Or how about Agnes Pockels (1862–1935). Even as a child Agnes was fascinated by science but, in Germany at the time, women were not allowed to attend university. So, she depended on her younger brother to send her his physics textbooks when he was finished with them. Agnes studied at home while taking care of her elderly parents. Doing the dishes  Agnes noticed how oils and soaps could impact the surface tension of water. So, she invented a method of measuring that surface tension. She wrote a paper about her findings that was published in Nature, and went on to become a highly respected and honored pioneer in the field.

Jennifer Doudna (left) and Emmanuelle Charpentier: Photo courtesy Nature

Fast forward to today we could certainly do worse than profile the two women who won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work with the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9; Jennifer Doudna at the University of California, Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier at the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin. Their pioneering work showed how you could use CRISPR  to make precise edits in genes, creating the possibility of using it to edit human genes to eliminate or cure diseases. In fact, some CIRM-funded research is already using this approach to try and cure sickle cell disease.

In awarding the Nobel to Charpentier and Doudna, Pernilla Wittung Stafshede, a biophysical chemist and member of the Nobel chemistry committee, said: “The ability to cut DNA where you want has revolutionized the life sciences. The ‘genetic scissors’ were discovered just eight years ago but have already benefited humankind greatly.”

Barbara McClintock: Photo courtesy Brittanica

Appropriately enough none of that work would have been possible without the pioneering work of another woman, Barbara McClintock. She dedicated her career to studying the genetics of corn and developed a technique that enabled her to identify individual chromosomes in different strains of corn.

At the time it was thought that genes were stable and were arranged in a linear fashion on chromosomes, like beads on a string. McClintock’s work showed that genes could be mobile, changing position and altering the work of other genes. It took a long time before the scientific world caught up with her and realized she was right. But in 1983 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work.

Katherine Johnson at her desk at Langley Research Center: Photo courtesy NASA /AFP

Katherine Johnson is another brilliant mind whose recognition came later in life. But when it did, it made her a movie star. Kind of. Johnson was a mathematician, a “computer” in the parlance of the time. She did calculations by hand, enabling NASA to safely launch and recover astronauts in the early years of the space race.

Johnson and the other Black “computers” were segregated from their white colleagues until the last 1950’s, when signs dictating which restrooms and drinking fountains they could use were removed. She was so highly regarded that when John Glenn was preparing for the flight that would make him the first American to orbit the earth he asked for her to manually check the calculations a computer had made. He trusted her far more than any machine.

Johnson and her co-workers were overlooked until the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures” brought their story to life. She was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, by President Obama.

There are so many extraordinary women scientists we could talk about who have made history. But we should also remind ourselves that we are surrounded by remarkable women right now, women who are making history in their own way, even if we don’t recognized it at the moment. Researchers that CIRM funds, Dr. Catriona Jamieson at UC San Diego, Dr. Jan Nolta at UC Davis, Dr. Jane Lebkowski with Regenerative Patch technologies and so many others. They’re all helping to change the world. We just don’t know it yet.

If you would like to learn about other women who have made extraordinary contributions to science you can read about them here and here and here.

Rats, research and the road to new therapies

Don Reed

Don Reed has been a champion of CIRM even before there was a CIRM. He’s a pioneer in pushing for funding for stem cell research and now he’s working hard to raise awareness about the difference that funding is making.

In a recent article on Daily Kos, Don highlighted one of the less celebrated partners in this research, the humble rat.

A BETTER RAT? Benefit #62 of the California Stem Cell Agency

By Don C. Reed

When I told my wife Gloria I was writing an article about rats, she had several comments, including: “Oo, ugh!” and also “That’s disgusting!”

Obviously, there are problems with rats, such as when they chew through electrical wires, which may cause a short circuit and burn down the house. Also, they are blamed for carrying diseased fleas in their ears and spreading the Black Plague, which in 1340 killed half of China and one-third of Europe—but this is not certain. The plague may in fact have been transmitted by human-carried parasites.

But there are positive aspects to rats as well. For instance: “…a rat paired with  another that has a disability…will be very kind to the other rat. Usually, help is offered with food, cleaning, and general care.”—GUIDE TO THE RAT, by Ginger Cardinal.

Above all, anyone who has ever been sick owes a debt to rats, specifically the Norway rat with that spectacular name, rattus norvegicus domesticus, found in labs around the world.

I first realized its importance on March 1, 2002, when I held in my hand a rat which had been paralyzed, but then recovered the use of its limbs.

The rat’s name was Fighter, and she had been given a derivative of embryonic stem cells, which restored function to her limbs. (This was the famous stem cell therapy begun by Hans Keirstead with a Roman Reed grant, developed by Geron, and later by CIRM and Asterias, which later benefited humans.)

As I felt the tiny muscles struggling to be free, it was like touching tomorrow— while my paralyzed son, Roman Reed, sat in his wheelchair just a few feet away.

Was it different working with rats instead of mice? I had heard that the far smaller lab mice were more “bitey” than rats.  

Wanting to know more about the possibilities of a “better rat”, I went to the CIRM website, (www.cirm.ca.gov) hunted up the “Tools and Technology III” section, and the following complicated sentence::

“Embryonic stem cell- based generation of rat models for assessing human cellular therapies.”

Hmm. With science writing, it always takes me a couple of readings to know what they were talking about. But I recognized some of the words, so that was a start.

“Stemcells… rat models… human therapies….”  

I called up Dr. Qilong Ying, Principle Investigator (PI) of the study.

As he began to talk, I felt a “click” of recognition, as if, like pieces of a puzzle, facts were fitting together.

It reminded me of Jacques Cousteau, the great underwater explorer, when he tried to invent a way to breathe underwater. He had the compressed air tank, and a mouthpiece that would release air—but it came in a rush, not normal breathing.

So he visited his friend, race car mechanic Emil Gagnan, and told him, “I need something that will give me air, but only when I inhale,”– and Gagnan said: “Like that?” and pointed to a metal contraption on a nearby table.

It was something invented for cars. But by adding it to what Cousteau already had, the Cousteau-Gagnan SCUBA (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) gear was born—and the ocean could now be explored.

Qi-Long Ying’s contribution to science may also be a piece of the puzzle of cure…

A long-term collaboration with Dr. Austin Smith centered on an attempt to do with rats what had done with mice.

In 2007, the  Nobel Prize in Medicine had been won by Dr. Martin Evans, Mario Capecchi, and Oliver Smithies. Working independently, they developed “knock-out” and “knock-in” mice, meaning to take out a gene, or put one in.  

But could they do the same with rats?

 “We and others worked very, very hard, and got nowhere,” said Dr. Evans.

Why was this important?

Many human diseases cannot be mimicked in the mouse—but might be in the rat. This is for several reasons: the rat is about ten times larger; its internal workings are closer to those of a human; and the rat is considered several million years closer (in evolutionary terms) to humans than the mouse.

In 2008 (“in China, that is the year of the rat,” noted Dr. Ying in our conversation) he received the first of three grants from CIRM.

“We proposed to use the classical embryonic stem cell-based gene-targeting technology to generate rat models mimicking human heart failure, diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases…”

How did he do?

In 2010, Science Magazine honored him with inclusion in their “Top 10 Breakthroughs for using embryonic stem cell-based gene targeting to produce the world’s first knockout rats, modified to lack one or more genes…”

And in 2016, he and Dr. Smith received the McEwen Award for Innovation,  the highest honor bestowed by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR).

Using knowledge learned from the new (and more relevant to humans) lab rat, it may be possible to develop methods for the expansion of stem cells directly inside the patient’s own bone marrow. Stem cells derived in this fashion would be far less likely to be rejected by the patient.  To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, they would be “of the patient, by the patient and for the patient—and shall not perish from the patient”—sorry!

Several of the rats generated in Ying’s lab (to mimic human diseases) were so successful that they have been donated to the Rat Research Resource center so that other scientists can use them for their study.

“Maybe in the future we will develop a cure for some diseases because of knowledge from using rat models,” said Ying. “I think it’s very possible. So we want more researchers from USC and beyond to come and use this technology.”

And it all began with the humble rat…

It’s time to vote for the Stem Cell Person of the Year

KnoepflerPaul14263

Paul Knoepfler

Oh well, it’s going to be another year of disappointment for me. Not only did I fail to get any Nobel Prize (I figured my blogs might give me a shot at Literature after they gave it to Bob Dylan last year), but I didn’t get a MacArthur Genius Award. Now I find out I haven’t even made the short list for the Stem Cell Person of the Year.

The Stem Cell Person of the Year award is given by UC Davis researcher, avid blogger and CIRM Grantee Paul Knoepfler. (You can vote for the Stem Cell Person of the Year here). In his blog, The Niche, Paul lists the qualities he looks for:

“The Stem Cell Person of the Year Award is an honor I give out to the person in any given year who in my view has had the most positive impact in outside-the-box ways in the stem cell and regenerative medicine field. I’m looking for creative risk-takers.”

“It’s not about who you know, but what you do to help science, medicine, and other people.”

Paul invites people to nominate worthy individuals – this year there are 20 nominees – people vote on which one of the nominees they think should win, and then Paul makes the final decision. Well, it is his blog and he is putting up the $2,000 prize money himself.

This year’s nominees are nothing if not diverse, including

  • Anthony Atala, a pioneering researcher at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina
  • Bao-Ngoc Nguyen, who helped create California’s groundbreaking new law targeting clinics which offer unproven stem cell therapies
  • Judy Roberson, a tireless patient advocate, and supporter of stem cell research for Huntington’s disease

Whoever wins will be following in some big footsteps including patient advocates Ted Harada and Roman Reed, as well as scientists like Jeanne Loring, Masayo Takahashi,  and Elena Cattaneo.

So vote early, vote often.

LINK: Vote for the 2017 Stem Cell Person of the Year