Elaine Fuchs grew up surrounded by scientists. Her father and aunt were scientists at Argonne National Laboratories, and later her older sister became a neuroscientist. So Fuchs has followed in the family footsteps. Today she is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, a professor at the Rockefeller University, and a widely recognized pioneer in adult stem cell research. She is also a former ASCB President. As an ASCB stalwart and a stem cell pathfinder, Fuchs was drafted to serve on the ASCB Stem Cell Task Force last spring and helped write the preliminary report, which was presented for public comment last month.
Stem cell biology has been both exhilarating and humbling, Fuchs told the scientists and science administrators gathered to hear the task force presentation in Bethesda. This week, Fuchs will bring that perspective to New Orleans, explaining the ups, downs, and the way forward in stem cell biology in her ASCB Keynote talk, Saturday, December 14, at the Annual Meeting.
Her stem cell work has earned Fuchs numerous awards. Among them are the 2004 Dickson Prize in Medicine for “significant, progressive contributions” in medicine; the 2009 National Medal of Science, which is the highest U.S. honor for scientific contributions; and the 2010 L’Oreal-UNESCO Award in the Life Sciences, which recognizes exceptional women in science.
As a woman pursuing a science career in the 1970s, Fuchs says that her path wasn’t always easy. When she started graduate school in biochemistry at Princeton in 1972, she brought the grand total of women students to three. Despite stellar grades, Fuchs had difficulty finding a mentor who believed that women should be in science. Her graduate mentor, Charles Gilvarg, was one of the people who didn’t. When Fuchs started her first faculty position in 1980 at the University of Chicago, she was the only woman among 15 faculty members in the biochemistry department. Years later, Fuchs learned that she had been paid less than the newest male hires in the department.
Fuchs has fought back against such attitudes but in her lab, her career in stem cell biology has been driven by what seems a simple question. “I really wanted to study how cells work, specifically how cells are able to proliferate and differentiate to make tissue,” she recalls. In the mid-1970s, Fuchs began looking for a cell system that could differentiate and be propagated for long periods of time. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s the definition of a stem cell,” she says. Only one cell line followed that paradigm at the time—human epidermal stem cells.
That led her to do a postdoc with Howard Green at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who focused on what we now recognize as human epidermal stem cells but which were then just human epidermal keritinocytes. “Epithelial cells require factors that fibroblasts make in order to be able to grow and be propagated, so Howard Green used the fibroblast feeder layer to culture the human epidermal keritinocytes.” Fuchs points out, “It was the first realization that stem cells needed other cells in order to grow.”
From those early days to the present era of the induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, Fuchs has pursued that basic question of how stem cells make the decision to become tissue. “If I have a wound, my body has to stimulate my stem cells to repair that wound, but then my body has to tell them when the wound is healed so they don’t keep proliferating,” Fuchs explains. “It’s important to understand what turns stem cells on and what turns them off.” By understanding these fundamental processes, they’ll have a better understanding of when it goes wrong in processes like cancer, Fuchs says.
In the wake of political as well as technical issues, it was the development of human iPS cell technology in 2007 that revolutionized the field, Fuchs believes. “The iPS technology is what really opened up the door to people like neurobiologists, who never had those doors open before,” Fuchs said. Through stem cell biology “now many different tissues in the body can be studied from the perspective of a stem cell,” Fuchs said, but there are still fundamental questions to answer.
Many other research areas are turning to iPS for new strategies to untangle old problems. As one example, Fuchs says, “We’re focused now on understanding the relationship between cancer stem cells and normal stem cells. We’ve been dissecting how the cancer stem cells are different from the stem cells from which they originate.” This is only the beginning, she believes. “Now so many different tissues in the body can be studied from the perspective of a stem cell.”
About the Author:
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.