This is the third in a series of posts from Vancouver high school students who attended the ISSCR conference after winning an essay contest sponsored by the Stem Cell Network, ISSCR and Let’s Talk Science. The contest was organized by Vancouver StemCellTalks. Congratulations to the five winners: Lauren Dobischok, Tanner Jones, Mindy Lin, Vivian Tsang, and Michelle Tse.
Post by Mindy Lin: High School Students v. Stem Cells
I am a high school student. High school students are normally thought as students who are not yet fully educated. As rebels, teenagers always think they are just as mature and knowledgeable as adults. However, the stereotype was proven true with me, a high school student attending the ISSCR 12th annual meeting. The experience was truly rewarding, but I definitely got overwhelmed by the jargon and concepts that were presented. High school students are similar to the stem cells in that they share some specific characteristics with the stem cell biology including the strengths and defects stem cells have.
High school students are often searching for their interests. They can possibly do research on embryonic stem cell or induced pluripotent stem cells or other types of biology, be engineers, politicians or lawyers in the future. We still have the ability to choose our specialties, just like stem cells, which are able to develop into different types of tissues and organs. This is indeed a super power. We can turn stem cells into any tissue or organ to replace the damaged ones. Stem cells seem to be the elixir of all diseases.
I am aware of the power of research, but it is more apparent when it comes to the clinical application. Stem cell therapies are not yet commonly used in the clinic: it is still an immature science. High school students are also immature. One of the reasons why they are not considered in many jobs is because they don’t take responsibilities. Stem cells can not be fully trusted in curing diseases. Safety issues often arise when moving the technique from bench to bedside.
Stem cells are hard to control since there can be a lot of variables. High school students are known for being able to be easily influenced. A different living environment or in the “sciencey” case, a different media to grow the stem cell can change what different cells or teenagers will become. “Cells are dynamic in response to environment,” Dr. Stefan Irion said during his talk in the Wednesday focus session about moving stem cell theories to practice. A stem cell may differentiate in one environment and keep its state in the other. Experiments can easily go wrong due to the huge variability a stem cell shows. This factor greatly impacts the use of the stem cell therapies in the clinic.
A sample of high school students includes all kinds of students, ranging from smart and organized to those who lack self-discipline or have even committed a crime. The demand to select talented people in different area mimics the desire of scientists to screen out the few stem cells that meet the requirements of the research. For example, a music show is trying to find the suitable singer. A screening process including several auditions may be held to assess the skills of potential singers. The same goes for stem cells. Sometimes, when we need the stem cells in some tissues, they are mixed with other cells from the tissue. Gene markers and functional assays are essential in order to pick out the stem cells that are needed. Even after picking out the stem cells, “to find the one that is doing what you want it to happen” is a challenge. The inability to efficiently pull out the desired stem cells is one of the problems that needs to be tackled for the development of the therapies.
Time is also a problem. A child might choose another pathway in his or her future instead of the one he or she started in university. The outcome can be negative. As stated by Dr. Lorenz Studer during the conference, time has been the biggest challenge since it takes one to two years to show the benefits of stem cells in patients. A product may even take around ten years while going through clinical trials and FDA safety checks. The outcome is unknown, and it will remain unknown for several years. The time and commitment with an unknown result may be risky to a lot of researchers and funders.
I had to google the jargon in my notes to understand the research they discussed in the conference. Many new techniques are emerging and I did learn that despite the obstacles such as funding, stem cells show promising developments in treating neural diseases, respiratory diseases and cardiovascular diseases. The stem cell has always and will always stay a perfect image in my heart with a deep belief that it will be the elixir of many diseases in the near future.