19 March 2019

Introduction into stem cell research for high school students

First UniStem Day in the Netherlands

They could have slept in on Friday 15 March, due to the national education strike. However, 80 senior high school students from the Utrecht region preferred to get acquainted with stem cell research. They whole morning, they followed short lectures during the first Dutch edition of UniStem Day. “So great this is possible!”

Researcher at Utrecht University Massimiliano Caiazzo took care of the first Dutch UniStem Day together with his colleague Ed Moret and researchers at UMC Utrecht and the Hubrecht Insitute. The international theme of this year was fake news, which is a very hot topic in stem cell research. In six short lectures of 20 minutes each, 80 students of 4, 5 and 6 VWO learned about the benefit of stem cells for medicine and of the challenges in academic stem cell research. Through this, UniStem Day is hoping to give young people some insight into a future in stem cell research, for which they can be prepared through several types of education.

About 80 high school students were present at UniStem Day 2019 in Utrecht.
Max Lindaarts is in 5 VWO of the 'Openbaar Lyceum' in Zeist.

“Topics from the studies”

Max Lindaarts from 5 VWO from the Openbaar Lyceum in Zeist was enthusiastic about what he hears and sees. “I am interested in biomedical sciences, medicine, chemistry and biology. When I saw the invitation, it seemed like an opportunity. I didn’t know stem cell research works and find it very interesting. The lectures are really about topics that are part of the studies. At some moments, I thought: it is so great that this is possible!”

International UniStem Day

With UniStem Day, the Italian professor Elena Cattaneo from Milan University wants to bring the importance of stem cell research to the attention of young people. This year, the event was organized for the eleventh time in a row, by now in about 100 cities throughout - and some outside - Europe, with 30,000 visitors in total. Each year, more UniStem Day events were organized, but never before in the Netherlands. Until the also Italian researcher Massimiliano Caiazzo started working for the Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Utrecht University. Caiazzo: “Hopefully, we have been able to make the teenagers understand what stem cell research really is. We hope that the attendance in Utrecht will inspire other universities and knowledge institutes in the Netherlands to take part into this next year.”

Read the short report of the presentations

Young research area

The programme of the day began with an introduction into the history of stem cell research. Pharmaceutical scientist Ed Moret: “Already since 1868, the term ‘stem cell’ exists for a cell that can be turned into other cells. However, it took until 1998 for medical researchers to isolate the first stem cell. Since 2001, this happens with biopsy specimens from the own body of a patient. This has made much scientific work possible in this young area of research.”

Re-programming cells

Next, Biomedical researcher Enrico Mastrobattista explained that these days, researchers can make stem cells from normal body cells, through a process called ‘dedifferentiation’. “In nature, a salamander’s paw can grow back on if it is bitten off by a predator. The cells in the shoulder of the salamander are then re-programmed into stem cells. We can now do this in the lab as well with normal body cells. For that, we need so-called transcription factors, pieces of DNA that we insert into the nucleus of the cell. For this, we are using viruses, which can build the DNA into the genome of the host cell.”

Cell therapy

How this research is really helping patients to become better, became clear from the stories that followed. Biologist Massimiliano Caiazzo: “Different types of stem cells are present in ten parts of our body. When someone has third-degree burns, you can use cell therapy to have stem cells grow into a new piece of skin.”

Hydrogel

Chemist Tina Vermonden want to make artificial cartilage and kidneys possible. “For such applications in the body, we are developing temperature sensitive hydrogels that we can insert as a fluid. They will solidify once they are on the right spot. In Utrecht, we for example do much research on artificial kidneys. We are trying to make hollow tubes out of hydrogel, in which kidney cells can grow.”

3D printing

Researcher Margo Terpstra from Utrecht Medical Center (UMCU) is making bones and organs with the use of 3D printing. “In and on those, we can grow living cells, to make them fit exactly into someone’s body.”

Cutting and sticking genes

But what if the patient’s cells aren’t good enough? Medical biologist at the Hubrecht Institute Pascale Dijkers showed how wrong DNA can be replaced by the cutting and sticking technique CRISPR-Cas9. It should be of use with genetic disorders like Duchenne’s disease. Cas9 are scissors and CRISPR is the address. However, the delivery can go wrong, so prudence is in order.

Discussion

The students event ended with a discussion on how fake news about the therapies can rise: by conspiracy thinking and by searching for information selectively.