Allen Wrenches Public Attention to Stem Cells

Peter Donovan, the co-director of the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center at UC Irvine, served as the keynote speaker for the fourth annual Allen Lecture held in the Beckman Center on Tuesday, Oct. 7.
Although Donovan used plenty of scientific jargon throughout the night, he explained that the purpose of the lecture was to make research with stem cells understandable to the public. For this reason, much of the lecture utilized images and events that could be made accessible to the non-scientifically inclined observers in the audience.
Donovan began his presentation with a bang, showing a still image of a mushroom cloud after the detonation of an atomic bomb. He then tied this back to stem cells as he told the audience how the radiation from the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima affected cell growth.
“Scientists found in [victims of] Hiroshima that massive radiation killed not only tissue, but the cells which repaired it. Victims could not produce blood cells or intestinal cells,” Donovan said.
As Donovan went on to note, if a person’s stem cells are destroyed, any damage done to that section of their body is permanent as it loses the ability to repair tissues.
When stem cells are destroyed in the human body it is a significant loss, according to Donovan; on the other side of the coin, stem cells can be used to benefit humanity in incredible ways.
One way in which such cells are being used to help individuals is through the study of pluripotent cells. Pluripotent cells are undeveloped cells that have the potential to turn into one of three germ layers that exist in human and animal bodies. These three germ layers are known as the endoderm, the mesoderm and the ectoderm. The endoderm makes up organs such as the lungs and parts of the stomach. The mesoderm makes up bones, blood and muscle in an organism’s body. The ectoderm partially works to form the nervous system. Due to the variety of body parts pluripotent cells can work to form, that scientists are constantly testing ways to fully utilize their potential, which often goes unnoticed.
“Often overlooked … is the idea that by studying the pluripotent cell … [it] can actually tell us about the development of our own species,” Donovan said.
Embryonic stem cells that are taken from fetuses have long been studied for their regenerative purposes. Yet, according to Donovan their application in the field of medicine is only beginning to be fully realized. One way in which this development is progressing is by more closely exploring the transformation from embryonic stem cells to specialized stem cells. The difference between the two is that specialized stem cells are limited to a specific cell type. However, they can also perform tasks that unspecialized stem cells cannot handle, as specialized stem cells have been conditioned to function in a certain manner.
In perhaps the most eye-catching portion of his presentation, Donovan gave an example of specialized stem cells being used. In a brief video, Donovan showed a mouse limping around after it had suffered spinal chord bruising. After explaining to the audience that the mouse was treated with specialized stem cells for seven weeks following the footage, Donovan then played another clip of the mouse walking after the treatment, showing improved movement.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Donovan’s presentation touched on a bittersweet note as he referenced stem cell research being done by his colleagues at UCI despite lack of federal funding. According to Donovan, funds were reduced drastically in August 2001 after a law was passed which limited the genetic variation of the types of stems cells available. However, he also noted the work of UCI researchers Susan Bryant, David Gardiner, Peter Bryant and Hans Bode, who have continued in their studies despite this limitation.
Although there has been a squeeze on stem cell funding, UCI researchers have worked to balance this out, by developing a machine that can differentiate specialized stem cells at a reduced price. Composed of small electrical conductors known as electrodes, the machine can be set at different frequencies in order to attract different variations of specialized cells. The cost of creating this machine is a mere $500, which is a considerable reduction from earlier machines, that cost as much as $500,000.
As a whole, the event differed greatly from last year’s Allen Lecture, in which Chancellor Michael Drake discussed the topic of health care. According to one lecture attendee, Daniel Huang, a senior at Irvine High School, Donovan outperformed Chancellor Drake.
“This was one of the better lectures. It was really interesting and clearer than last year,” Huang said.
Joseph DiMento, a professor of planning, policy and design at UCI who helped organize the event, was pleased with its outcome.
“I thought it’s exactly what we try to promote … I’m sure not everyone in the room followed, but for the most part it was very communicative,” DiMento said.

Spencer DeBrosse contributed to this report.