Giving Your Muscles Superpowers

Your muscles can already heal themselves, but this ability degrades over time. Stem cell biologists are looking to give them a boost.

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Your muscles help you move, expand your lungs so you can breathe, contract your heart so it pumps blood. When your muscle is injured, a tiny population of cells is activated to help the repair process. It’s these muscle stem cells that Professor Penney Gilbert from the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto wants to capture and learn from.

As we age, our muscles’ ability to repair themselves decreases and we lose muscle mass. Muscle can also degenerate due to diseases like muscular dystrophy or cancer. If we could figure out what gives muscle stem cells the power to repair and then augment those powers, we could use our own cells to heal ourselves. Like creating our own little team of superheroes to save our muscles from degeneration.

“You’re the best source [of cells] for yourself.  The cells are there… they just need a little tweaking,” says Gilbert.

Professor Gilbert also studies diseases of the muscle like Duchenne muscular dystrophy. She is creating a model of the neuromuscular junction – where your nerve cells and muscle cells meet – in a dish. This could allow study of the biology of disease but also serve as a method for screening drugs.

“It gives us just a limitless possibility to understand how that tissue works.”

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Penney Gilbert joined the University of Toronto as an Assistant Professor in August 2012. She received her BSc (1999; Haverford College) and PhD (2006; University of Pennsylvania) degrees in Cell and Molecular Biology. She subsequently trained as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University, where she was awarded a National Institutes of Health K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award.

Penney’s research is focused on identifying biologics that target aging muscle stem cells within skeletal muscle tissue and provide them with the boost they need to repair tissue damage. Her team works closely with engineers to critically examine the physical properties of the muscle stem cell environment in the body and uncover clues about how it changes with age. They also create models of human skeletal muscle in culture dishes in order to better understand what controls muscle stem cells and to facilitate small molecule drug screens. Penney is recipient of the Ontario Early Researcher Award and the Connaught New Investigator Award.