It’s like a magic trick.
With the flick of a switch, Cole DeForest and his lab can transform human cells.
It starts with a group of stem cells that have the potential to become any other type of cell found in the human body. Most labs manipulate these cells with temperature, pH, or chemical factors, but DeForest and his team use light-based chemistry.
“We’re trying to come up with new ways to take stem cells and coerce them into becoming other mature cell types,” DeForest said. “Controlling when and where this happens is important for re-growing functional tissues and engineering organs from scratch.”
The stem cells they work with are harvested from human bone marrow, and can be turned into bone, cartilage, or fat. More flexible but more contentious are embryonic stem cells, which can become any other type of cell.
DeForest’s lab has also begun to explore the use of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These donor cells are exposed to a set of chemicals that wind back their genetic clock, allowing them to become any type of tissue in the body.
The best part about iPSCs? You can find them anywhere.
“We can take a sample from your skin and reprogram these cells into iPSCs, giving us all of the power of embryonic stem cells but with none of the controversy,” DeForest said.
One day, these iPSCs may be used to treat patients with cardiovascular ailments.
“In collaboration with UW Pathology Professor Dr. Charles Murry, our lab is starting to think about ways to treat heart attack patients with injected iPSCs,” DeForest said.
With heart problems killing more Americans than any other cause of death, such a development could shake up medicine as we know it.
“I want to make a real mark on society,” DeForest said. “We’re working in an area where we can make huge impacts on a lot of people — extending lives anywhere from a couple of months to a couple of decades.”
DeForest has a B.S.E. from Princeton University and a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado. He did his postdoctoral research at the California Institute of Technology.