The golden era of stem cell discoveries: Una Riekstina at TEDxRiga 2013

The golden era of stem cell discoveries: Una Riekstina at TEDxRiga 2013

Translator: Kristaps Kadiķis
Reviewer: Patricia Aguirre Today, I’m here to tell you about the hidden treasures
of the human body, the marvelous stem cells. Humans are the crowning glory
of the nature, and during Renaissance times
it was thought that the architecture of the human body represents the architecture
of the Universe. This is a picture of the Vitruvian man
by Leonardo da Vinci showing the geometry of the human body. Renaissance period was the beginning
of the modern medicine. The anatomy of the human body
was discovered, and by the invention of the microscope the body was studied
at the cellular level, and it was found that the cell is the smallest building block of the body. And we are composed of 50 trillion cells. A trillion is a number with twelve zeroes. So how big would be
the house of trillion zeroes? To imagine a house
of trillion building blocks. And in fact, the Great Wall of China
is built of 4 billion building blocks. And we, as human beings,
are 10 thousand times more complicated than the Great Wall of China! It took 2,000 years
to build the Great Wall of China and perhaps you’ll wonder
how long it takes to build a human being? In an average, it takes
7 to 10 minutes for mom and dad to put two magic building blocks together, to lay the fundaments of a new life, and the rest of the body building
is done by the magic stem cells. I was trying to imagine
what would my life look like if I lived in Renaissance times. Despite of the great progress
in science and culture, women were not allowed to study. So luckily for me,
I live in the 21st century in Latvia, where society is familiar
with gender mainstreaming ideas, and I am a researcher, so I chose to wear a lab coat
instead of that gorgeous dress. I came to the research lab
when I was a third year biology student, and I was fascinated
by the friendly atmosphere in the lab. Respectable scientists were sequencing DNA and during the breaks, they boiled tea and smoked in the fume hood. “Wow,” I thought,
“this could be my dream job!” So now, I have 19 years of experience
being a researcher and during the past 7 years
I’ve been studying adult stem cells. I’m very of excited
about the stem cell potential, and I think that today we live in the golden era
of stem cell discoveries. Every part of our body
has some capacity to renew due to these amazing stem cells. I want to understand the regeneration process
that occurs naturally to find out ways
how to use stem cells to treat diseases. How I got interested in cell biology? One day I saw a picture
in my high school biology book that looked something like this. I tried to reproduce it, and it described that cell consists of a membrane, and there is a Golgi complex, and mitochondria, and lysosomes and there is a nucleus,
the director of the cell, so my vivid imagination
pictured a large desk in the middle of the cell with a strict director giving commands. When I learned to use the microscope, I never saw a director inside the cell, instead I learned,
that cell is a very complex structure and the nucleus is rather a hard disk that stores genetic programs. And cells communicate
with each other by sending signals, and these signals are
biological and chemical molecules. The signals are transmitted
then to the nucleus, and the genetic program is starting. So once we know the signals
to make the desired cell type, we can grow cells in a Petri dish and then transplant them
into the patient and treat the disease. Cell experiments are performed
in a cell culture laboratory which is equipped with such equipment
as sterile biosafety cabinets, incubators, microscopes,
and different chemicals. And cells are grown
in special plastic bottles, in liquid cell-culture medium. So during the experiment,
we add a mixture of growth factors, and then we observe changes
in cell shape and protein expression. And in this image, I wish to show you one experiment that I managed to prove
that adult stem cells are similar to embryonic stem cells
in their potential. When I tried to publish my observation, my paper was rejected three times, but I didn’t give up,
and now this paper is published and cited 115 times
by other stem cell scientists. Here is a classical experiment
to prove that you work with stem cells. So to prove that these are
stem cells you have to show that they’re able to differentiate
into 3 distinct cell types. So I added 3 different mixtures
of growth factors, and as a result after 3 weeks
of experiment, I got fat cells. And I can say that these are fat cells,
because I can stain oil droplets in red. Then I get bone cells,
and I can say that these are bone cells because I see calcium deposits
stained in orange. And then the cartilage cells
that I can stain in blue. Well, experiments take a long time and to get these results,
it took me half a year. So I wondered what takes so long
to get results in research. And now, imagine that you want to prepare some very complicated dish,
a very complicated recipe, something like homemade mayonnaise. So first, you have to get the recipe, then the right ingredients, and then you have to know
the special technique how to mix it together. And I tried twice, and I failed. Well, the same happens in experiments. It’s the mixture of right ingredients
and a technique that makes it work. And here I’m showing you skin stem cells. It is the fluorescent microscopy image. I use special dyes to color cells, so you see the director,
the nucleus, stained in blue, and the mitochondria, the power plant
of the cell, is stained in red, and the cytoskeleton,
that holds the cell together and gives its shape, is stained in green. I can spend hours
looking into the microscope. Its like seeing a different world. And I think these cells look like jewels. Indeed, stem cells
are our inner treasures. Here is another experiment where I use
the mixture of nerve growth factors to make skin stem cells
to become nerve cells. It took 2 years of work
for my student Vadims to establish the right procedure. And now we have
a model system to find a drug that would stimulate
nerve growth after trauma. Make a wild guess, how long it will take
for me to find this drug if it took 2 years to get to this picture? Breaking news fascinate
humans nearly every day. We hear about restored vision, about improved heart functions, rebuilt urinary bladders, rebuilt trachea. A lot of studies have been done
in a mouse model. By the way, during my PhD studies,
I worked with thousands of mice. And I really worked very hard,
and when I finished my PhD, I thought: “That’s it, no more mouse work!” Then I got married, and now I study human adult stem cells. For thousands of years, humans
have been dreaming to reach the stars, and yet, we have come
as far as to the Moon, and for thousands of years,
people have been dreaming to find the elixir of life, and we are taking the first steps
in undertaking how stem cells work
to regenerate the body. There is enough evidence now collected that stem cells from the patient
or from the donor really can cure the disease. There is success in clinical trials
to treat such diseases such as retinal degeneration, to improve heart functions
after a heart attack, to stop transplant rejection, to renew cartilage, to heal skin lesions, and to treat blood cancer, autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease, and immune system’s deficiencies. The road is long
from stem cell research to the clinics. There are significant safety standards
that must be met to say that the treatment
will be safe for the patient. And the main safety issues
for stem cells are the potential tumorigenicity
and immunogenicity risks. So I see a great similarity between the Renaissance era
and the stem cell era. Both increased understanding
about the human body with little effect on healthcare. And to increase the effect on healthcare, more specialists are needed
in biotechnology, bio informatics, bioengineers, healthcare just to make the infrastructure
in the field. The university is the incubator
of knowledge generation. And I use this image
— Earth at night — to illustrate that in each of the major light spots
there is a university. And in each of the universities
there is a cell culture lab and a stem cell scientist
working on discoveries about stem cell use to treat diseases. I think there’s a great
potential in this field. It takes a long time
to educate a biotechnologist, so one learns how to use
advanced research equipment, how to plan experiments, and how to interpret the data. In coming years, there will be
major advancements in stem cell use in bioimplants, drug screening,
and stem cells will be uploaded with anti-cancer drugs like Trojan horses to reach the cancer and to destroy it. 23 years ago, a Nobel prize was awarded for the discovery
of bone marrow transplantation. That marked the beginning of the golden era
of regenerative medicine. I believe that stem cell based therapies will become the golden standard of
healthcare for my children’s generation. Thank you. (Applause)


  1. I don't think her discovery alone is Nobel-worthy – she did give a good overview of the absolute basics of Stem Cell Biology, and some of the established facts that are usually taught to students of Regenerative Medicine. A Nobel-worthy discovery would be much more pivotal than her mere addition of one fact – that she has found a way to make the differential potential of adult stem cells better, almost as much as embryonic stem cells.

  2. (continued from below) If she does go on to do more research on this finding, however, it could lead to bigger, better discoveries, which could then win her a Nobel Prize.

    The discovery of genome sequencing by Frederick Sanger was Nobel Worthy – it completely changed the way we do genetics today. Yamanaka's production of induced Pluripotent Stem Cells was Nobel Worthy. Hers could eventually lead to bigger discoveries, but it isn't quite there yet.

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