Chris Barry: Exploring the mystery of developmental clocks

Why does it take about nine months for humans to fully develop from conception to birth, compared to 22 months for an elephant, or just three weeks for the world’s most-studied mammal, the mouse?

One might think an animal’s size or complexity would dictate length of gestation, but that’s not always the case. For example, a hulking hippopotamus takes 237 days to develop, while the much smaller sea lion takes 350 days.

Chris Barry, assistant scientist of regenerative biology at the Morgridge Institute for Research, is drawn to the incredible potential of answering this mystery. Barry works in the research area led by renowned Morgridge stem cell scientist James Thomson, and uses a variety of technologies to determine the “triggers” of development, which could be genetic or biochemical in nature.

Figuring out what governs and controls timing of early development could have huge implications for human health, Barry says. It would be the first step in possibly shortening the time frame to create certain cells for therapeutic benefit.

One good example of the challenge: Cells of the central nervous system take months to develop to a functional state, far too long to make them therapeutically practical for patients, Barry says.

If we could shorten that timing, we could potentially grow cells from individual patients that could counteract some of our gravest diseases, including Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s Disease and spinal cord injuries.

“If it turns out these clocks are universal across cells,” says Barry, “you are looking at broad-spectrum impact across the body.”

Beyond direct human therapies, knowledge of clocks could open up better and faster ways to test drugs and develop customized medicines.

Barry, a native of Canada, studied genetics at the University of British Columbia as an undergraduate, then switched all the way to Canada’s Atlantic Coast for grad school at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Thomson’s work first came on his radar during a graduate school journal club, where the only rule was to come in with a new and compelling finding for the group.

A friend of his brought in Thomson’s seminal 2007 paper on reprogramming adult cells into induced pluripotent stem cells, and Barry was hooked. “I was struck by the tremendous potential – theoretically, this could impact any disorder you could possibly think of,” Barry says.

He describes getting a postdoctoral offer in the Thomson Lab, made official over beers at the Memorial Union Terrace, as “a flattering and humbling experience.”

Barry is one of several researchers in the Morgridge Institute “Fearless Science” video series, which profiles scientists going after high-risk, high-reward questions in biomedicine.