A new series of blogs providing an insider’s perspective on stem cell research and the people involved in it. Written by Anestis Tsakiridis, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh. In this first blog: meet Anestis and find out what he'll be writing about in the coming weeks.
Stem cells are a bit like the rock stars of biomedical research: they are graced (or cursed) with the privilege (or burden) of public interest. They inhabit media headlines, political agendas, research proposals, biotech company budgets, religious and philosophical debates. More importantly, they live in the hopes of millions of human beings stricken by devastating diseases. However, here I will not be writing about potential stem-cell-based therapies or related ethical and social issues; these subjects are regularly covered extensively on this site as well as in other places. My focus will be on the researchers: the famous and the not so famous white-coated workers in a highly specialised labour force who deal daily with the experimental intricacies of stem cell biology, sometimes generating “scientific breakthrough” headlines (although most of the time not).
I am a member of this community, the not famous fraction specifically. I have spent the last ten years of my life in various laboratories, first as a student and then a postdoc – in other words, a researcher in a university lab. After short spells studying the structure of a milk protein and the effect of aspirin on colon cancer cells, I eventually got captivated by the complex beauty of developmental biology and its use of embryonic stem cells as a model for studying how different specialised cell types arise from unspecialised ('pluripotent‘) cells in the petri dish. I am currently looking into the mechanisms driving these pluripotent stem cells to disappear during embryonic development (they must be eliminated for an embryo to develop normally). I’m also trying to find out what happens when normal specialised cells either retain or regain the property of pluripotency.
My aim in writing this series of blogs is to provide an insight into the structures, concepts and routines that underlie the work of a stem cell researcher (as well as any other type of biomedical researcher). I also want to exorcise the ’playing God’, or ’man behind the monster’ type of sensationalist titles that appear sometimes in the press and accompany the stereotyped image of scientists as wild-haired, bespectacled modern Frankensteins who create cow/mouse 2-headed hybrids. This image is ingrained within a big part of the public consciousness and the research community itself is largely responsible for shaping the picture. We choose to remain hermetically isolated and detached from the ‘outside world’ due to a mixture of heavy workload pressure, lack of interest for communication and arrogance. I am a prime example of this type of ’aloofness’: When non-scientist friends (and also taxpayers, hence indirect funders of my research) ask what my work is about or what it involves, I usually give a vague, bored answer like, “I mix liquids in tubes,” and then swiftly change the subject. Now it’s time for the more detailed, transparent replies that I owe to these questions, so keep an eye for my next blog...