Monday, July 22, 2013

Bridges trainees showcase their internship research projects

More than 150 newly minted stem cell scientists participating in the agency's Bridges to Stem Cell Research program converged on San Francisco last week to share the fruits of their research labors. My colleague Kevin McCormack wrote earlier about Jill Helms, who sponsors Bridges trainees in her lab at Stanford, and her inspiring talk on the first day of the meeting. The meeting's second day included sessions in which the students presented posters describing their research and their impressive results so far.

The Bridges program provides classes and internships for undergraduate and master’s level students interested in stem cell science. The program nurtures the next generation of stem cell scientists. Many of the 400-plus Bridges trainees to date have gone on to graduate programs in stem cell research and others have gotten stem cell research jobs. This year’s Bridges trainees explored how cancers grow, the molecular underpinnings of what makes stem cells unique and how to get them to grow more efficiently in the lab.

For example, Anu Dimashki, a CSU Northridge master’s student, working in Katherin Plath's lab at UCLA studied how genes on X-chromosomes are turned on or off during reprogramming, and found that the process —called DNA demethylation —is critically different in reprogrammed induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) when compared to normal embryonic development. It’s a result that could not only help stem cell scientists grow iPS cells more efficiently, in the long run, it might provide inspiration for treating diseases caused by X-chromosome mutations like hemophelia.

And John Boyle, a Berkeley City College student working with Robert Blelloch of USCF, presented his findings about how two different but related mutations linked to prostate cancer, BRAF and KRAS, have distinctly different effects in prostate cancer cells. Cells with the BRAS mutation grew aggressively in a messier way. Cells with just the KRAS mutation also developed into tumors, but they had more clearly defined boundaries. Most prostate cancer tumors have cells with both kinds of mutations, but it’s unclear how they interact. Boyle’s work on these mutations could lead to insights into the differences between slow-growing and faster-growing cancers that are more likely to metastasize.

Alfredo Guerrero, a CSU Fullerton student working in Laura Perin’s USC lab worked with a new pool of stem cells called amniotic fluid stem cells. They normally float in the amniotic fluid that bathes fetuses and are extracted during amniocentesis, a routine procedure that many pregnant women undergo. He studied how these cells could be used to treat chronic kidney disease. He found that amniotic fluid stem cells helped damaged kidneys filter out toxins better and the mice lived longer, too. What’s surprising is that the stem cells didn’t replace the defective kidney cells that did the heavy lifting of filtering toxins, but seem to be indirectly helping those cells do their job better.

Kevin Lopez, a San Diego State University student working in Stuart Lipton’s lab at the Sanford-Burnam Institute studied how Down Syndrome iPS cells could help us better understand Alzheimer’s disease. Neurons from people with Down Syndrome generate the protein, beta amyloid,which is implicated in Alzheimer’s disease, in large amounts. Neural progenitor cells created from iPS cells from a people with Down’s Syndrome took longer to grow, were not as plentiful and fewer matured into neurons than those from a non-Down Syndrome person. Studying these cells could answer many questions about Alzheimer’s disease.

I was impressed by how dedicated, curious and articulate all the young scientists I spoke with were. Congratulations to all CIRM Bridges trainees on the new ground they are breaking in stem cell science!

Rina Shaikh-Lesko

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