Like a young child who dreams of growing up to be an astronaut, stem-cells have not yet had their hopes and dreams crushed by a 9-5 job that they slowly grow to hate. These fresh, dreamy-eyed cells are important for things like healing your body when you are sick, and scientists have been looking into how to manipulate and enhance these cells so that the human body can bounce back from diseases and injuries it normally would not be able to.
I sat down with Julie Rytlewski, a biomedical researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, to discuss stem cells and their importance. Julie is actively trying to figure out how to use stem cells to grow new veins and arteries in petri dishes and rats, and eventually in people and lab-grown organs.
1. So Julie, what kind of horrible injury would have to happen to me that I would need stem cell therapy to help my body grow new blood vessels?
As a guy in your twenties, you’re more likely than any other demographic to wind up in a car accident, probably from texting your girlfriend or some other youth-induced act of idiocy. Anyway, let’s say that hypothetical car accident lacerated your thigh, leaving you with a large wound and maybe even diminished blood flow to the rest of your leg. The body is great at healing small wounds such as minor scrapes, cuts, and bruises. But large wounds often require some form of grafting to bridge these tissue gaps and heal much more slowly. Even with grafting, you’re likely to be left with tough scar tissue that lacks the suppleness of normal skin.
Stem cell-based therapies aim to address all of these concerns.
2. Let’s say I’m a professional juggler who just had a tragic accident during the flaming torches part of my act. What could you hypothetically do for me right now with the progress you’ve already made?
A: Severe burns are probably one of the scariest injuries to have because you have burned away your body’s first defense against the outside world. Sadly, we can’t simply sprinkle stem cells on you like magic fairy dust and call it a day; that would be the equivalent of hiring a very resourceful hit-man without ever telling him the target- either nothing will happen or a lot of very bad things will happen. Stem cells need cues, too. These cues are provided by biomaterials, which you can think of as glorified Jello (it’s about the same consistency, but not nearly as tasty and without the Bill Cosby endorsements).
I would then, as a final act of beneficence, point you in the direction of a career advisor. Clearly it’s time to hang up the unicycle, Juggle Boy.
3. What are the unsolved problems still holding researchers like yourself back from being able to heal my body after an unfortunate juggling mishap or a fiery Formula 1 race car crash?
The body is amazingly complex. We’ve known about stem cells now for several decades but we’re still finding new cues that influence their behavior and new ways to artificially create those cues.
Because stem cells are unique in their ability to morph into several different cell types, we must also be precise in how we direct their behavior and not create a bone cell where we want muscle—or worse, over-stimulate blood vessel formation and cause a tumor.
4. How are you and your team solving these problems? I want to be sure you’ve got this thing all but wrapped up before I start my juggling career.
By all means, please send me your career timeline so I can plan experiments accordingly.
The lab I work in at UT Austin specializes in cardiovascular tissue engineering. We do everything from developing new biomaterials that promote heart muscle regeneration to studying how stem cells go about blood vessel assembly.
5. If you and your team of scientists keep doing stem cell research at the pace you are now, and I continue to eat fresh fruit and Wheaties every morning for breakfast, could I live forever?
Just eat your Wheaties and practice your juggling and hope that I finish my dissertation work before your fiery mishap. Deal?