Zebrafish can repair their own hearts (Credit: Novartis AG)
At an MRC-sponsored session at the Cheltenham Science Festival in June, researchers discussed why scientists are taking lessons from the humble zebrafish when it comes to helping the body heal itself.
Scientists are pretty good at growing cells. They can take stem cells, a kind of cell that has the potential to develop into many — and sometimes any — cell types, and coax them into developing into heart cells, liver cells, retinal cells, nerve cells … the list is long.
The idea is that transplanting these healthy cells into damaged organs could cure disease. There are even attempts to grow entire organs; a new heart grown from a patient’s own cells wouldn’t be rejected so they wouldn’t need immune-suppressing drugs.
But growing heart cells in the lab is a million miles from building an entirely new heart, with its specific and complex structure of muscle and blood vessels. Wouldn’t it be better to fix the old one? Read more
Professor Robin Ali is an MRC-funded scientist working at the forefront of not one, but two, fields of regenerative medicine: gene and stem cell therapy. Katherine Nightingale caught up with Robin at UCL’s Institute of Ophthalmology to find out more about his work.
The eye is fertile ground for developing new therapies, a feature that Robin Ali is taking full advantage of. Not content with a thriving gene therapy programme, he took up the challenge of entering the world of stem cell therapy in 2004 when the MRC was funding researchers to move in from other fields. Robin’s research focuses on therapies for retinal disorders, mainly those that affect the light-sensitive ‘photoreceptor’ cells of the eye. Many of these are rare, single-gene disorders that cause vision loss over time — and which currently have no treatments.
Lucky for Robin, “the properties of the eye lend it to experimental interventions,” he says. It is fairly straightforward to operate on, and the progress of a therapy — improved retinal sensitivity, for example — can be easily monitored. The eye is also somewhat protected from the body’s immune system, so there is less of an inflammatory response to introduced genes or cells. Read more
Hashim Ahmed is an MRC fellow and urology surgeon based at UCL and University College Hospital. Katherine Nightingale caught up with him between surgeries to find out how he’s trying to change treatment options for prostate cancer patients on his ‘days off’.
Hashim Ahmed caught the research bug fairly early in his career, during a research project he undertook as part of his medical degree at the University of Oxford.
He was looking into the best conditions in which to grow nerve cells for potential implant into patients with Parkinson’s disease — pretty repetitive work by his own admission. “But that’s where I got excited about research. I was doing work that was advancing in small incremental steps but we were involved in something right at the forefront of research in that particular field.” Read more