The Science Fiction of Stem Cells​

The Science Fiction of Stem Cells

Written by Shanzeh Ahmed
Illustrated by Fiona Tung
Do you ever wonder what makes all the cells in your body differ from one other? Or about how we develop from a tiny ball of cells into a complex newborn baby in just 9 months? How about why our eye cells are different colors than our muscle cells, or why our hair cells and kidney cells have different functions?

To answer these questions, we must first understand ‘stem cells’. Some of these cells appear very early on in our development while we are still in the womb, and some are continually produced throughout our lives. These cells are special because they have the ability to develop into any and all of the different cell types in our body! It is populations of these cells that will develop into stomach cells, gut cells, skin cells, and every other type of human cell imaginable. Once stem cells specialize into a more specific cell type, they cannot change back into stem cells; the process is irreversible. Their special characteristics allow scientists to use them to repair damaged bones, cartilage and tissues. More importantly, they can be used to target damage caused by debilitating diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis or Alzheimer’s.

To this end, stem cells have been rigorously studied by researchers in a wide variety of disciplines. However, studying these cells in isolation does provide us with much useful information. It is best to study how these cells form networks or clusters, which allows them to work together to stimulate responses in the body. The goal of many researchers is to investigate what would happen if we disrupted those natural pathways. Recent advances in the field of stem cell science have opened up new ways to do this kind of research, particularly through making ‘organoids.’ Organoids are small, self-assembling pieces of tissue made from stem cells. Remember, this can be any tissue, because a stem cell has the capacity to differentiate into any kind of cell! Are you interested in studying heart attacks? We have the ability to make heart cells! Stroke? Brain cells it is. Organoids are tiny, ranging from the width of a human hair to about 5mm in length, but they can provide a wealth of information. What’s more, we can extract a patient’s own stem cells and compare them to that of a healthy individual.

In fact, a researcher from UC San Diego, Alysson Muorti, is conducting some fascinating research using brain organoids in his laboratory. He wants to see how clusters of brain cells (called “neurons”) work together early in development to send electrical signals in unison. His laboratory took a step beyond traditional science into the realm of science fiction movies: they connected their brain organoids into the circuitry of a robot! The electrical signals produced by the brain cell clusters resulted in that robot being able to walk! It was clunky and ungraceful, but it represents a huge step in the disciplines of biology and robotics.

These clusters of cells share many characteristics with a developing brain, which gives researchers a window into observing normal and abnormal brain growth. This is important because disorder-causing errors generally occur early on in development. By growing organoids from different disease states, we may be able to see the differences between healthy and diseased tissue, allowing to us to gather information about where to target potential therapies. It’s a fascinating and novel tool that may lead to new information about what makes us tick.