Latest Lab Targets Stem Cells
NADIA M. WHITEHEAD | May 22, 2015 | UNIVERSITY COMMUNICATIONS
Master's student Alexandra Alcántara Guardado is using stem cells for her research on graphene oxide — a potential material to create stents with. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service
Stem cells are a popular topic and it's no wonder why. With the potential to regenerate anything in the human body – organs, bones, muscles – scientists have flocked to the promising field for decades.
Now, a new laboratory at The University of Texas at El Paso is looking to see what impact it can have on the science. Led by faculty member Binata Joddar, Ph.D., a biomedical engineer with extensive experience in tissue engineering, the lab is dubbed the Inspired Materials and Stem Cell Based Tissue Engineering Laboratory (IMSTEL).
"Our genes normally program stem cells to become what the body needs – neurons, skin, etcetera," said Joddar, who started at UTEP in November 2014. "But in the hands of researchers, we can decide what the cells will specialize in."
Originally from India, Joddar landed at UTEP after a stint at RIKEN, Japan's largest basic science research institute. There she focused on the stem cell niche – the environment that stem cells grow in. Joddar plans to continue the research at UTEP, but also expand into the potential health applications of stem cells.
Graduate mechanical engineering student Alexandra Alcántara Guardado, who started at IMSTEL in January, is already knee-deep in one of those projects. Her research could lead to better heart stents, the manmade structures that prevent hearts attacks by keeping the arteries around the heart open.
Stents are commonly coated with stainless steel, but the master's student is investigating graphene oxide, which is a cheaper material that will not corrode like stainless steel typically does in the body. For her experiments, Alcántara will use stem cells to create the cells that make up the lining of blood vessels.
These cells are then applied to the graphene oxide-coated stent to ensure that the cells are compatible with the new material. Alcántara cannot yet disclose what she has found because she is preparing a manuscript with the results, but she said the findings are promising.
"I was excited to get involved in this lab when I heard about Dr. Joddar's expertise," said Alcántara, who had no official biology training before IMSTEL. "I always wanted to get involved in tissue engineering and this is my chance to bridge into that field."
Beu Oropeza, who earned a bachelor's degree in biology May 16, also looks forward to earning her graduate degree under Joddar's supervision.
"I love how UTEP is growing and putting an emphasis on research," she said.
Oropeza is currently brainstorming thesis research on creating cardiac patches to help patients who have had heart attacks.
During a heart attack, sections of the heart can die because they're not receiving oxygen.
"As the cells start to die, they turn white instead of red," Oropeza explained. "These cells normally cannot regenerate and stay dead, impairing the function of the patient's heart from then on."
A stem cell-based cardiac patch has the potential to regenerate this dead heart tissue.
Joddar and Oropeza envision a patch of muscular tissue made out of the patient's own stem cells. These stem cells could easily be created by taking a couple of millimeters of the individual's skin and infusing it with four genes shown to create adult cells that have been reprogrammed to a stem cell-like state. These reprogrammed adult cells are called induced pluripotent stem cells.
After generating the patient's stem cells, they could be grown and manipulated into muscle heart cells, ultimately creating a patch made of tissue, or cells.
"Surgeons could then place this patch on the dead portion of the heart so it can begin to integrate and regenerate the section," Oropeza said.
The team admits that technology like graphene oxide stents and cardiac patches is in its infancy and could take years to develop. But they are extremely eager to be working in IMSTEL.
"Dr. Joddar is pushing us to be the best way can be," Alcántara said. "Students who train with her and learn to work with stem cells could eventually be the ones that make breakthroughs in the field."
Joddar plans to train a number of undergraduate UTEP Miners on how to handle and grow stem cells during the summer.