Apr 2010

Impressive little buggers, aren’t they…?

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David Kent

I was sitting at a microscope, looking down at one single cell – a nice tiny circle, not much different from an air bubble.  The senior PhD student in our lab shrugged as though this was old hat: “been there done that, now let’s get to work” – but I just sat there, jaw agape, thinking about how this air bubble was about undergo the most rigorous test that exists to tell whether or not it is a stem cell.  If successful this tiny sack of proteins would leave my field of view and complete billions of cell divisions on its way to single-handedly re-creating the entire blood system of a mouse.

The field of stem cell science has proceeded with breathtaking speed over the last ten years, but one thing is for certain – Stem Cells and Canada have a much longer relationship.  Pioneering experiments by Jim Till and Ernest McCulloch are internationally heralded as the first formal proof that stem cells exist. One year, at the Canadian Stem Cell Network’s (SCN) annual meeting – Jim and Ernest had just given a lunchtime talk –the SCN ran a small test. They asked, “If you were directly supervised by one of these men, please stand up”, then “If you were supervised by one of these people standing, please stand up.” After a few iterations, I realized that my grandparents (Jim and Ernest) had a pretty enormous brood: over 80% of the meeting’s 300 + delegates.  I now have thousands of stem cell cousins and siblings, and in my current lab in Cambridge, I just met my nephew for the first time.

Photo courtesy of highwaygirl67 on flickr

Photo courtesy of highwaygirl67 on flickr

It seems a long way from the street hockey and rock fights in St. John’s to my current research on diseases originating from blood stem cells – but if there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, it’s that great things can come from the most unexpected of places.  It often has much to do with the people around you and a shared enthusiasm for what you are doing. Scientific research is all about inspired discovery – yes, even rock fights can help you discover things – and cultivating the culture of enthusiasm for discovery and critical thinking is the lynch pin for a successful research enterprise.  It means that the role of scientists, especially those in training to be scientists, is an important one and it is the big driver behind my extra-curricular efforts in groups like Let’s Talk Science, and with my newest project, which is a blog on issues affecting the training environment for scientists in our country.  At UBC, Let’s Talk Science consumed a fair amount of time outside the lab, but was a huge personal and professional benefit to me through its community involvement in the school system of British Columbia and through its work within the university to develop the communication and public outreach skills of graduate students and post docs.

I was lucky enough to co-ordinate the program with two amazing co-coordinators (Erika Eliason and Beth Snow).  Both Erika and Beth were also involved in a team of ~20 science trainees who gathered over three years to discuss the ideas and research that form the building blocks of the Black Hole blog which originally posed the question: What’s wrong with the science enterprise? The blog website hopes to reach out to science trainees, established scientists, and science policy makers across the country to identify the (sometimes worrying!) trends in science training, to inform them of excellent resources within and outside of the country, and to stimulate discussion on possible solutions moving forward.

Through this science advocacy work, I’ve learned an amazing amount from the people I’ve interacted with.  One of the most impressive things is the amount of interest there is from the public.  Canadians, when engaged, are actually extremely curious about stem cells and science in general.  I think the biggest roadblock is on the engagement front, but groups like the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, Stem Cell Network, the Science Media Centre of Canada, Let’s Talk Science and numerous others have really generated some excellent energy over the last decade, which is hopefully turning the tide.  Another great thing about public outreach is that the enthusiasm is contagious – day to day work in the laboratory is sometimes mundane, but when you can step back and look at the bigger picture about why you are doing what you do, you often rekindle the spark that originally drove you into that field in the first place.

What’s new and exciting about stem cells?

Even since I started my PhD (2003) at the Terry Fox Lab, there have been massive advances in the field.  Perhaps the biggest of these from a “why you should care” perspective are the reprogramming of cells and the accelerated rate of gene sequencing technologies.  Both of these came directly from the funding of basic “curiosity-driven” research and have evolved to have major clinical implications.  It is now possible to take a normal adult cell from anybody and fiddle with just 4 genes to bring it back to something that looks an awful lot like the most potent stem cells we know so far – embryonic stem cells.  This is very new stuff and lots of work needs to be done, but the possibilities are tremendous and warrant substantial investigation.

Secondly, the revolution in the speed of gene sequencing now makes the $1000 genome believable and nearly achievable.  Currently, it sits somewhere in the $30,000-50,000 range, but it’s on the way down.  I was at a talk last month, and one of the scientists who was responsible for these advances said: “If we tried to get funding for this today from a granting agency, many would throw it out immediately for being too blue sky” – this is because when they were uncovering the chemistry that drove this technology (in the early 1990s), it had no practical, translatable applications.  This runs counter to current policies which constantly seek proposals with direct clinical relevance or market translatability – a practice that is extremely short sighted.

Excitingly though, we are truly on the cusp of entering the era of personalized medicine (for diagnosis and treatment) and I hope that we do enough to inspire the next generation of scientists while bringing the support of the general public along with us.  For young scientists like me pursuing an academic research career, this means a concomitant emphasis on training/teaching, public outreach, and a general willingness to remove the blinders that academics often have firmly affixed to their heads.  Stem cells have a large role to play in this new age of biology and medicine and I’m thrilled to have been given the opportunity and inspiration to be a part of it.

David Kent is currently completing post doctoral research on blood stem cell disorders at the University of Cambridge, UK under the supervision of Professor Tony Green.  He completed his PhD in 2009 in blood stem cell biology under Professor Connie Eaves and has been a member of the Stem Cell Network since 2003.  David will also be one of the Stem Cell Network’s regular trainee bloggers, which can be found at http://scnblog.typepad.com, and continues to write his independent blog at http://scienceadvocacy.org.

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