A cute white aquatic creature with fluffy red gills smiles out from the screen. A murmur goes around the lecture hall. "This is an axolotl,” announces Berlin heart surgeon and stem cell researcher Professor Christof Stamm. “He looks so happy because he knows that he’s basically invincible.” Thanks to its stem cells, this salamander can regenerate entire body parts and organs – including its heart. Unfortunately, Stamm adds, humans and other mammals do not have this ability.
The professor works at the Berlin-Brandenburg Center for Regenerative Therapies (BCRT) and is speaking at the tenth annual European stem cell event, called UniStem Day. The Berlin edition of this event is organized by the German Stem Cell Network (GSCN).
Christof Stamm wants to find out whether and how humans could emulate the axolotl and use transplanted stem cells to repair damaged heart muscles. He presents one of his former cases: a young boy with an enlarged heart who one day suffered heart failure. Stamm was able to successfully treat his patient, using stem cell therapy and other treatments.
UniStem Day – a European initiative
Lectures like these form only part of the event’s program. Each year, UniStem Day attracts some 27,000 participants from all over Europe. This year, 200 of those were at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) in Berlin. The educational initiative provides high school students with a wider knowledge of current stem cell research. Topics such as the reprogramming of the body’s cells into stem cells or the use of technological applications in research and treatment are not on the general curriculum. Text books just can't keep up with the rapid progress of stem cell research.
“Stem cells have become an everyday tool in the lab,” says Luiza Bengtsson, who runs a teacher training program at the MDC. “They are used to develop new drugs, for example – and we can even show this in action.” On a tour of the MDC laboratories, researchers also demonstrated how stem cells are widely used in Berlin to test active substances. In workshops, participants discussed ethical questions such as the use of CRISPR-Cas9 to edit the germline, whether untested stem cell therapies are trustworthy, and the extent to which stem cells can replace animal studies.
Vanessa is a high school graduate who has just finished training as a biology lab technician at the Lise Meitner School in Berlin. She is considering going on to study life sciences, and finds the UniStem Day extremely valuable as a platform to network with stem cell professionals: “I can speak to people who have studied the subject or work in this field. This helps me decide which option is best suited to me.”
Stem cell research can be tedious work. Heart surgeon Stamm admits that he is not certain whether stem cells were the cause of his young patient’s recovery. A later clinical study conducted by Stamm yielded less than promising results. It’s clear that there’s plenty more work to be done – and perhaps some of the UniStem Day 2018 participants will take up the baton.