James Thomson, the stem cell pioneer who recently discovered that scientists can reprogram skin cells to act like stem cells by adding four genes, will soon join UCSB to further develop his research in a laboratory on campus.
Thomson directed the first group to isolate and culture human embryonic stem cells in 1998. He is currently a John D. MacArthur professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as an adjunct professor in the department of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at UCSB. He said he chose to open a second laboratory at UCSB because he was eager to collaborate with several researchers on campus, including mechanical engineering professor Tom Soh and biologist William Smith, who works with the development of tunicates, a sea organism.
Soh said he looks forward to working with Thomson.
“[Thomson] is perhaps one of the most active people in stem cell research,” he said. “He is a fantastic scientist and a great person.”
Soh works in bio-technology, and said he uses advanced cell sorting techniques and high throughput screening – which can collect large amounts of experimental data – to separate and find certain molecules and cells, such as ones with regenerative properties.
“We create instruments to greatly accelerate discovery of biological phenomenon,” he said.
Smith said he will work with Thomson as a side project, and will research the embryonic cells of Ascidians, a marine animal.
In addition to collaborating with researchers, Thomson said he also likes that UCSB has access to marine organisms because he is interested in comparing the cells of marine organisms to the cells of animals already under study, such as mice.
UCSB Stem Cell Training Program Director Dennis Clegg, who also is one of Thomson’s collaborators, said the laboratory – located in Ellings Hall at the California NanoSciences Institute – should open within one month, after certain features such as freezers, incubators and water baths are added. The room also had to undergo modifications, such as a high-efficiency particle filter that was added to purify the air, Clegg said.
Thomson said he hopes to travel back and forth from Madison to Santa Barbara at least once a month. One of Thomson’s goals at UCSB is to discover how to turn a skin cell from a stem cell into a pluripotent cell – a cell which can change into different types of cells.
Because skin cells are much less controversial than stem cells derived from embryos – the method used until Thomson’s discovery – Thomson predicts more people will examine stem cells now.
“I think even though it’s more or less the same kind of cell, more people will research [stem cells],” he said.
Thomson also said he predicts that within 30 years clinical trials involving stem cells will exist for diseases such as diabetes. However, he warned of huge risks at first, citing the work with bone marrow that killed most of the people who initially tried the method.
“It will fail, people will die,” Thomson said. “If you try to push something new, it will usually fail the first time and people are not prepared for that.”
Still, Thomson said he believes scientists will eventually discover the secrets to regenerative medicine – ways to make the body repair itself – although he said it will take many years.