BAR HARBOR, MAINE – A scientist at the MDI Biological Laboratory has been awarded a $1.7 million grant by the National Institutes of Health to study factors that may make it safer and easier to use stem cells in medical treatments.
Dustin Updike, Ph.D., studies small structures known as germ granules that are found only in germline stem cells. Germline stem cells give rise to all cells in the body, including the sperm and eggs that will carry the organism’s DNA into the next generation. Stem cells, with their ability to repair or replace damaged tissues, have great potential for treating injuries and diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
“The presence of germ granules in a cell can alter and confer stem cell properties,” says Updike, “Once we determine how germ granules function, we may be able to use those natural mechanisms to create stem cells from a patient’s own cells that are safer for regenerative medicine. That will lead to much-needed cures and treatments.
Updike joined the Davis Center for Regenerative Biology and Medicine at the MDI Biological Laboratory in 2012. He was the first researcher to demonstrate that if you remove germ granules from germline stem cells, the cells lose their stem-cell qualities and become more like muscle or nerve cells.
Current methods for creating stem cells from ordinary cells involve making changes inside the cell nucleus, where the cell’s chromosomes are found. These methods can damage DNA, making the procedures risky. Germ granules, however, lie along the outside of the membrane around the nucleus. They appear to intercept and regulate genetic material exiting the nucleus that would otherwise cause the cell to differentiate or become a specific type of cell.
Kevin Strange, Ph.D., president of the MDI Biological Laboratory, noted that Updike’s grant, which will be awarded over a span of five years, comes at an especially challenging time for science funding. “Receiving NIH support for scientific research has never been harder,” Strange says, “especially for younger scientists. The NIH funds only 10 percent of the proposals it receives. We are proud of Dustin and know his research will help find new ways of treating chronic disease.”