First step: creating cures from worms

Dr. Xantha Karp, examining her nematodes.

Dr. Xantha Karp, examining her nematodes.

More than a quarter million dollars in grant money from the National Institutes of Health was recently awarded to a microbiologist from CMU in order to bolster a certain type of stem cell research.

Dr. Xantha Karp is a CMU professor, and the lead microbiologist on this stem cell research project.

“Well there’s a lot of different diseases that people have been interested in using stem cell therapies for. Parkinson’s, and various other neurodegenerative diseases. Diabetes, certain cancers, spinal cord injuries.”

With this project, she hopes to start down a path that helps cure the diseases she just mentioned.

Before we go any further, it’s important to note Karp isn’t doing the research on humans.

“We’re not dealing with human embryos just by definition because we’re using a different species. Also, the type of stem cell that I am trying to model are adult stem cells. So these are stem cells we have in our bodies as adults that replenish our tissues.”

That’s right, we have stem cells as adults. They’re responsible for things like making more blood when we get cut.

Karp said we have a stockpile of these types of stem cells in our bodies at all times. They’re kept in a state of stasis until our body needs them.

For an idea of what that’s like, imagine the cells are cryogenically frozen like Walt Disney, just waiting for us to reawaken them.

Karp said her goal is to better understand how the cells are able to enter and exit that static, or frozen, state.

At the center of her study is a special protein that influences stem cell development.

“So this grant is focused on a protein called FOXO. It’s a transcription factor, which means it regulates the expression of other genes.”

Basically Karp is saying FOXO is the person who wakes up frozen Walt Disney, and gives him a job to do.

“Our aims are all focused on studying how FOXO is doing this. So we want to fit FOXO into specific developmental pathways to understand how it interfaces with them in order to control stem cell fate.”

So, Karp wants to be able to force FOXO to wake up these stem cells, and to give them specific jobs she chooses.

Karp said she’s not looking for glory, and she makes it clear her research is just the starting point.

“I am a basic scientist who is trying to find out how things work and I’m using the worm to do that. It’s a long process, but without that fundamental knowledge there’s nothing to build on later on.”

Karp said her research could pave the way for others to come in and make cures for diseases or disabilities that, right now, we can only dream of fixing.

Parkinson’s, Diabetes, spinal injuries this research could be the first step to a cure.