Saturday, July 4, 2009

Stem Cells: A Primer

So, if any of you are wondering where I've been wasting away my summer hours (while I'm not blogging), look no further. I'm currently participating in the University of Pennsylvania Institute for Regenerative Medicine summer internship. Translation: I'm working in a stem cell lab at UPenn. It's really cool. My main job: Doing qPCR, or Quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction. Basically means amplifying DNA so you can count how much of a gene is being expressed in a sample. Cool beans.

Now, stem cell research is one of the hottest medical fields out there, and it's generated a lot of political backlash as well. Here's a little explanation of what they are, and why it's politically sensitive.

A stem cell is basically a functionless cell that turns into another cell. You're made up of about ten trillion little cells, all of which have a specific function. Stem cells become those cells. You actually have a bunch of stem cells in your body, called adult stem cells, which replentish the cells in your body. They're not as important to research, because they can only become a few specific cell types and aren't very cooperative with scientists.

The cool ones are embryonic stem cells. About 3-5 days after conception, you are a tiny ball of these cells, which eventually become all of the specialized cells that make you you: Heart, lung, eye, spleen, and so forth. Basically, these little guys can become any type of cell, plus they can renew themselves forever. Why is this cool? Because you could theoretically take a bunch of stem cells, say "become heart cells!", and they could become heart cells. Then you could repair damaged hearts from people with heart attacks, or just better study the heart without cutting someone open.

What it means, potentially, is that you could cure heart disease, cure brain diseases like Alzheimer's, diabetes, all those crazy bad things, even repair blindness or spinal cord injuries. Or you could test drugs without having to use human subjects. Point is, the cells are really powerful and could cure lots of diseases.

Problem: Embryonic stem cells, the ones that matter, are only found when you're 3-5 days old. As in, in an embryo. And taking them out to study them kinda kills the embryo. So, a bunch of people have said "You're a-killin' babies!", and thus, we have a problem. Solution: People found a way to develop cells just like embryonic stem cells from normal cells. Without killing babies. Problem solved.

What I'm doing is studying them. It's a really new field, and they're not totally understood. I'm working in a lab that's trying to understand, basically, the way that stem cells turn into other cells, and what makes a stem cell a stem cell. It's really complex, involving a lot of genetics and stuff that's way over my head. I just do a lot of testing.

But, yeah, that's the basics on stem cells. Now you know more about things than you did before. Woo hoo.

Next week: A discussion on ecstasy and its current legality.


Anonymous said...

Nothing I didn't know there, but great post!
I'm so jealous that you got a research post at UPENN!!! I've been trying to get one for about a year and no such luck. The closest I got to was a research post in biomedical engineering in this noobie university which I turned down because I have the IQ of a peanut.

I'm flattered that you liked Parts and Labour and that I'm your favourite visitor!

I got hooked onto Omegle for about three days...
The shorts were pretty sick.. I liked Terminus more though. Very Kafkaesque.

Good luck with your research post... Keep an eye open for any openings ;)

Be back next week.

Got into this band called Neutral Milk Hotel... Not sure whether you'd like it, but give it a listen. Not exactly RIGHT at your alley, but very good.

This is a very long comment. I feel weird for writing such a long comment. And exeunt.

Jon said...

That was quite long. Sorry if it's too simple - we're working on identifying differentiation mechanisms and reasons for why certain cell lines are predisposed to differentiate in certain ways, i.e. toward mesoderm as opposed to endodorm. And I doubt your IQ is quite so low.

Thanks for the luck, and I've been listening to NMH for a while now. They're not my favorite, but In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is quite nice. I've recently been listening to a lot of The Most Serene Republic, and I've gotten into two new bands called Fanfarlo and Cut Copy. Fanfarlo is an indie pop sound that reminds me a lot of Arcade Fire crossed with Beirut and maybe a bit of NMH. It's good stuff. Cut Copy is very... synth-pop, psychadellic type stuff. It's fun to listen to. Oh, and Fanfarlo is (or at least was) running a $1 special on their entire album, Receivers. If it's still up, I'd highly suggest it.

Yay long comments. Keep reading!