Students explore promise and challenge of stem cell therapies

The projects looked right at home in the Discovery Town Center: A row of four colorful scientific posters describing the status of stem cell therapies, complete with microscopic images, graphics, flow charts and detailed reference lists.

Not until the fresh-faced authors lined up alongside their posters to chat with visitors during the June Saturday Science program did their uniqueness stand out. This was the culminating work of 16 talented and gifted (TAG) students from the Madison Metropolitan School District.

Eighth grade students, to be precise.

Their charge for spring 2014 was to work with the Discovery Outreach team and other UW–Madison scientists and report on how stem cell research is being translated to human health and disease. Each team of four students explored how current stem cell treatments are impacting disease. They chose to focus on diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and spinal cord injuries.

On Saturday, the students fielded questions from passersby, presented findings via powerpoint to about 30 people, and celebrated their achievements with parents.

“They worked at a very high level,” says Dan Murphy, an outreach coordinator with the Morgridge Institute for Research who worked closely with the TAG group. “I saw all of the aspects of working as a team. There was the eagerness, there was the frustration and there was the triumph. Being able to present here at Saturday Science is a real treat.”

Murphy says past Discovery Outreach programs on regenerative biology usually focused on what stem cells are and what they might be capable of. This was the first year that focus shifted to some of the therapies currently under investigation, a sign of how the research field is maturing.

Murphy adds that all four projects had a common conclusion: Big challenges remain, and progress can be slow. “When they were searching online they often asked, ‘Why am I not finding the answer to my problem?’ They got to know pretty quickly that these problems are hard and we don’t know how everything works.”

That point was evident during an April meeting between the student teams and graduate student volunteers who are working in the regenerative biology arena. The diabetes study group — Evanka A. of Toki Middle School; Erin S. of Sennett; Suzy V. of Whitehorse; and Kelly W. of Jefferson — met with biomedical engineering graduate student Matthew Parlato to discuss some of the big questions facing diabetes treatment.

The students wanted to know how stem cell therapies could be used to regenerate beta cells and islets in the pancreas, the insulin-producing agents that are decimated by the body’s immune system in Type 1 diabetes. If you generate beta cells from stem cells and put them back in the pancreas, Parlato asks the group, how will you keep the immune system from destroying them again?

“If you can answer that, you will probably win the Nobel Prize,” he says. “That’s the $10 million question.”

The group then discussed the recent promising discovery of a drug compound that, when combined with beta cell transplantation, helped protect the cells from immune system attack in mice models. They also learned that regenerating damaged blood vessels in the pancreas is critical to keeping islets healthy.

“It’s going to take some time,” says Parlato. “We are not close to curing Type 1 diabetes. But we might find treatments that can help people lead a normal life, even without a cure.”

The students were jazzed about Parlato’s visit, and laughed about his frequent catch-phrase for the scientific process: “We’re working on it!”

“I think he connected everything together for us,” says Erin. “I feel we were a little distant because we were all working on specific questions. He’s working on his PhD, but he was able to talk about it at our level.”

Evanka. says she originally suggested they work on diabetes for personal reasons, noting a relative has the disease. “But it’s a really common condition, too. We decided on it together because we all had connections to it.”

“We each chose one part of the project to work on,” adds Suzy. “We needed to define what is Type 1 diabetes, how can stem cells help, how close are we now to a cure, and what are the ethics of using stem cells.”

On the last question, the group concluded that using alternative sources of stem cells, such as adult induced pluripotent stem cells, will help reduce the ethical issues surrounding human embryonic stem cells.

Murphy cites many academic benefits to this project, including understanding of literature reviews, properly citing references, and developing a poster-style communication that has long been a staple of graduate research.

“The students did their own peer review process where they presented to each other, and the feedback was critical, high-level and professional,” he says. “We didn’t teach them how to do it; it just happened.”

Saturday Science is a monthly hands-on exploration held at the Discovery Building from 10 a.m. – noon on the first Saturday of each month. Discovery Outreach is a joint program of the Morgridge Institute for Research and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation that engages more than 30,000 community members annually.