Using ‘Genetic Trickery’ to Fight Degenerative Diseases

An exciting new experiment shows that even after being grown in a lab, pluripotent stem cells can still make any type of cell that's needed.

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The biological process that results in a human being starts with a single fertilized egg, and it fascinates stem cell researcher Janet Rossant. She’s spent many years researching the fundamental question of how that transformation happens, as that one cell divides into many cells that specialize to make all the tissues of the human body.

Rossant is the President & Scientific Director of the Gairdner Foundation and Chief of Research Emeritus at SickKids Hospital in Toronto. Her research starts from the very first cell division that an embryo undertakes.

“One of the first things they do is make cells that make placenta and cells that make the embryo,” says Rossant. “The cells that make the embryo are what we call pluripotent cells, and they are the cells from which you can get pluripotent stem cells.”

These cells could be the foundation of stem cell treatments for degenerative diseases because they have the ability to make any specialized cell type in the body.

“Along the way we’ve gone off into other things and studied brain development, heart development, blood vessels,” adds Rossant. “We keep coming back to that tiny little embryo, and that’s what we’re still doing today.”

Embryonic development is such a rich process that there is still so much to learn. Rossant and her team use genetic manipulation, live imaging, proteomics, and single cell expression analysis to explore how cells specialize during development.

After growing mouse embryonic stem cells in a petri dish in the lab, Rossant wondered whether she could still make a complete mouse out of them.

And so she did just that.

“We did a little genetic trickery,” explains Rossant. “We gave those stem cells other cells that could make the placenta, and then we had little mice running around that were perfectly normal and had been derived from cells that had been grown for many generations in a petri dish.”

The experiment is incredible proof that even after being grown in a lab, pluripotent stem cells can still make any cell type that is needed for treatment. Researchers just need to figure out how to nudge them to become the cells they need. And that’s an exciting insight for regenerative medicine.

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Janet Rossant is a senior scientist in the Developmental & Stem Cell Biology program at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), and a Professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics, and the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Toronto.

Her research interests centre on understanding the genetic control of normal and abnormal development in the early mouse embryo using both cellular and genetic manipulation techniques. Her interests in the early embryo have led to the discovery of a novel placental stem cell type, the trophoblast stem cell. Rossant is also the Director of the newly formed Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Rossant trained at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, United Kingdom and has been in Canada since 1977, first at Brock University and then at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, Mount Sinai Hospital, Toronto, from 1985 to 2005.  Rossant has been recognized for her contributions to science with many awards, including the 10th ISTT Prize, from the International Society for Transgenic Technologies, the Ross G. Harrison Medal (lifetime achievement award) from the International Society of Developmental Biologists, the Killam Prize for Health Sciences, the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology, the Conklin Medal from the Society for Developmental Biology, and the CIHR Michael Smith Prize in Health Research, Canada’s most prestigious health research award. She is a Fellow of both the Royal Societies of London and Canada, and is a foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Science.  Most recently it was announced that Rossant will receive the 2015 Canada Gairdner Wightman Award, the first female to do so.

Rossant is actively involved in the international developmental and stem cell biology communities and has contributed to the scientific and ethical discussion on public issues related to stem cell research. She chaired the working group of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research on Stem Cell Research, which came up with guidelines for CIHR funded research in this area.

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