Science Writing Competition – People’s Choice Award Winner

by Soteroulla Ellina, PhD Student, Department of Brain Sciences

Lab grown heart cells: Keeping the beat up

– Sorry, I am running late at the lab so I will have to raincheck today’s meeting…

This is probably something I have said more times than I wanted… Sometimes in confidence that the other person would understand and sometimes- especially with someone that I haven’t known for long, in a more apologetic way, hoping that they would not judge me. Good for me, this time, my friend belonged in the first category- he has known me for more than 15 years- so we quickly rescheduled.

A few days later, we finally met. After apologising once more for cancelling, I started talking about how unpredictable the lab can be, and how time flies once you are in your lab coat. That was when he looked at me puzzled asking:

– So, what is your PhD about…? Seeing the distress in my face when I realized that one of my best friends did not know what I had dedicated my life for the past 3 years, he tried to calm me down adding:

I know it has to do with Genetics and you are using cells that you take care of everyday. But why?

In his defence, he knew the basics and he was genuinely asking for more information. How could I be mad at him? So, for the first time, I started explaining the science- rather than the practical difficulties and the stress that come with it.

– As you said, I am interested in Genetics, the way that the information about all our traits is transmitted from one generation to the other. More specifically, I am working on an inherited disease- Friedreich’s ataxia- which is incurable and frequently devastating. It usually starts in childhood and mainly affects the nerves causing loss of balance, slurred speech, while the patients die early due to heart failure…

I could see he was stunned… so I quickly switched to the bright side.

– Our aim is to cure the disease. To achieve that, we need to understand the exact mechanism that leads to it. Previous research has shown that the problem within the gene is that its code has 3 letters that are repeated too many times – GAA. This GAA repeat, in patients, switches off the gene when it should be on. The gene is switched off by triggering an ancient defence system which packages the DNA making it inaccessible. Understanding how to overcome this trigger leads to the possibility of switching the gene back on using enzymes that mark the affected gene as ‘active’. That is why I am using these demanding stem cells. They have the capacity to turn to the affected cell type- heart cells- so we can study the disease in a system that resembles the heart, without using the actual organ! Let me show you a video of the beating cells.

– That explains the long hours – he whispered – you keep up the hope along with the beat!

Motivation boosted instantly.