According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), seven out of ten deaths in America are due to chronic diseases. The leading culprits include diseases of the cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and respiratory systems as well as liver, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease.
This is where the role of stem cell research becomes increasingly important.
According to Brenda Ogle, chair of the Stem Cell Bioengineering Focus Group of the UW Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center, stem cell bioengineering is the process of how cells sense, interact, and respond to their environment. Ogle says, “Such cells are then used to repair or replace damaged organs.”
Unknown to many students, UW- Madison is a hot spot for high profile, cutting edge stem cell research. Stem cells are the basic cells found in all organisms and are either classified as embryonic or adult. Embryonic stem cells are naturally pluripotent; they have the capability to divide into different functioning cells such as blood, brain, muscle, or heart. Adult stem cells’ function cannot be altered and are consequently less useful in their natural state to biologists and engineers.
Embryonic stem cells are more valuable, but due to the fact they are harvested from an early stage embryo, their use is much more controversial. Adult stem cells raise fewer ethical and moral questions. They are extracted from adult patients by drilling into the bone and removing bone marrow, using liposuction to extract adipose tissue, or drawing blood and running it through a machine to capture the stem cells.
Currently at UW-Madison, the newly opened Morgridge Institute for Research in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (WID) houses biologists, engineers, and other scientists that are researching the development of such stem cells.
James (Jamie) Thomson, Director of the Regenerative Biology department in the Morgridge Institute for Research, is a major contributor to UW-Madison’s success in stem cell research.
Thomson has made many remarkable advances in the field, starting with a 1995 discovery in which his lab was the first to successfully isolate embryonic stem cell lines from a non-human primate. In 1998, Thomson was featured in Science Magazine’s “Scientific Breakthrough of the Year” issue for being the first to successfully isolate human embryonic stem cell lines.
In addition, Thomson was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine’s 2001 issue of “America’s Best in Science in Medicine” and later made TIME’s 2008 list of the world’s most influential people, all while working at UW- Madison. Listed among names such as Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, and Michael Bloomberg, Thomson made the cut as one of the world’s most influential people for his lab’s discovery of the isolation of human induced pluripotent (iPS) cells.
iPS cells allow the less controversial, yet less pluripotent, adult stem cells to be induced and mimic the controversial, naturally pluripotent embryonic stem cells. Research which has opened many doors for scientists, biologists, and engineers in the field by enabling them to work on stem cells and without the controversial use of embryos.
Kris Saha, an assistant professor in stem cell bioengineering, says, “The human stem cell community here is really phenomenal. It is really one of the top in the world, and it has a great start because Jamie Thomson’s lab has done so much in the field.”
Assistant Professor Kris Saha is new to the UW-Madison campus from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at MIT/Harvard University where he conducted his post-doctoral work. Saha first came in contact with a professor at MIT and Harvard by entering a paper competition while a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.
“There is a pretty long delay to get human embryonic stem cell lines. I wrote about finding a better way to try to track them from being derived at clinics to being distributed for the public good,” Saha says.
One of the judges on the panel for the paper competition recommended Saha to deepen his understanding of science and ethics by taking a few classes that were less technical and more societal in nature. Consequently, Saha was led to apply to, and later be awarded, the prestigious Society in Science fellowship.
The Society in Science fellowship finds the world’s best post-doctorate candidates who are interested in not only revolutionary technologies, but also their impact on society. Saha says, “That experience was really eye opening for me. It led me to all sorts of projects I don’t think a normal biology post doc would be able to do.”
Still very interested in the societal impacts of his research, Saha is more than excited to form his lab and hopes to find a few students interested in interdisciplinary work. “You never know where alumni will end up, but I’m hoping the people who go through my lab will think seriously not only about what they research, but about how it connect to what’s happening worldwide,” Saha says.
Saha’s lab is one of four labs which comprise the BIONAnocomposite Tissue Engineering Scaffolds (BIONATES) department in the WID under the direction of Jamie Thomson. These four labs are named after their ‘theme’ leader and include the Saha, Turng, Gong, and Ashton Labs. Ethan Lippmann, a post-doctoral student in Dr. Randy Ashton’s lab, speaks of the atmosphere he has witnessed while working at the WID. “The concept of the building is collaboration, and Jamie Thompson was great about getting that set up,” Lippmann says. For example, Saha plans to work in collaboration with all BIONATES labs but studies topics that most closely relate to the work being done in the Ashton lab. Saha’s research involves engineering the inside of the cell such that it is harmonious and talks with the functionality that can be engineered outside of the cell. “I will not only have to think about the outside of the cell, but I will have to work with other labs, such as the Ashton Lab, to communicate with the inside of the cell to change the cell signatures,” Saha says.
Likewise, Ethan Lippmann of the Ashton lab speaks of the team’s research and how they are receiving beneficial knowledge and expertise from Kris Saha. In the Ashton lab, Ethan is performing tests on arrays of hundreds of different concentrations and combinations of genome factors to produce a particular phenotype.
There is a specific gene associated with each phenotype that Ethan and other members of the Ashton Lab are trying to produce. Lippmann says, “If we can make it report when it is on, that makes our screening a lot easier. Kris is an expert in genetic manipulation of stem cells to make them report in a specific way, and he is teaching us some of his techniques.”
Ethan Lippmann and Kris Saha both stress how beneficial it has been to their research to have multiple engineering and science disciplines working together at UW-Madison.
Unlike where Lippmann completed his graduate work in a single discipline lab, the Ashton Lab consists of members from multiple engineering majors. “The mechanical engineer in our lab knows how to build everything. As the chemical engineer, I am helping with fluid flow; we also have biomedical engineers and polymer engineers. It helps to be more efficient and get a lot more done,” Lippmann says.
Similarly, Kris Saha comments that the collaboration and progressive atmosphere on UW-Madison’s campus as a whole is part of the reason he chose to work here following his post-doctoral work at MIT and Harvard Universities. Saha says, “The human stem cell community is phenomenal here. Chemical as well as the whole number of other engineering departments have historically been very strong at UW-Madison. The combination of strength in engineering and stem cell biology was a really good fit for the work I was trying to do.”
Although Kris Saha has only been at UW-Madison since the beginning of the 2012 school year, he is already looking for ways to make an impact with high hopes for his future on our campus. Admitting that curing disease is perhaps too ambitious of a goal for the first few years of a professor’s work, Saha does hope to begin developing new therapeutic tools using stem cell research and aims to achieve a better understanding of disease mechanism using human disease modeling.
Saha says, “Curing disease is an ambitious goal at the very top that requires the team work which is present across the campus at UW-Madison.”