60 million kroner for a new Center of Excellence, StemPhys led by Lene Oddershede
Stem cells have the potential to develop into any type of cell and are seen as the holy grail of regenerative medical treatment. The dream is to be able to reproduce new organs – hearts, livers, kidneys and perhaps even new nerve cells so that the paralysed can regain mobility. But no researchers around the world have been able to control the process. Now the Danish National Research Foundation has awarded 60 million kroner for a new Center of Excellence, StemPhys, to be led by Lene Oddershede, a biophysicist and head of the research group, Optical Tweezers, at the Niels Bohr Institute.
The new centre will conduct research into how to understand and control stem cell development and it is an interdisciplinary collaboration between physicists at the Niels Bohr Institute and stem cell biologists at the Panum Institute, both of which are part of the University of Copenhagen.
Stem cells are the earliest stage of the cells in our bodies. When stem cells mature, they develop into all of the cell types that the body is made of, for example, muscle, bone and skin cells, or organs like the liver, kidney, or pancreas as well as nerves and blood cells. But what is it that controls what a stem cell will develop into?
“We are interested in understanding how stem cells decide what they will become. Do they receive some signals? – is there some sort of timer in the development process? – or are there some physical factors that they sense along the way? We will research the internal and external regulatory mechanisms of the cells,” explains Lene Oddershede, associate professor of the research group Optical Tweezers at the Niels Bohr Institute.
Collaboration between physicists and biologists
Lene Oddershede will head the new Center of Excellence, StemPhys. The research is a collaboration between physicists at the Niels Bohr Institute and stem cell biologists at the Panum Institute. The researchers are working with stem cells from mice and fish, as well as with cultured stem cells. The stem cell biologists are experts in their fields in stem cell systems and the biophysicists are experts in formulating theoretical models of complex biological systems and performing physical studies of living cells.
“With our optical tweezers we can grab a hold of the individual cells and study them while they are still living – even if they are part of a larger organism. We can expose them to various factors and mechanical manipulation and monitor the progress and find out what it is that triggers the development of different cell types. If we can control the differentiation of stem cells, we can also control what they will develop into and this has enormous potential for the treatment of diseases,” explains Lene Oddershede.
Future medical treatments
The potential for the future is that you will be able to grow new organs from stem cells and regenerate insulin producing pancreatic cells to combat diabetes or make cells to test how well a patient tolerates a given medicine, such as chemotherapy.
The researchers also hope to reverse the development of a cell and take mature cells, like skin cells and transform them into stem cells through a physical or chemical action.
“I am absolutely certain that stem cells are the future of many treatments for diseases,” says Lene Oddershede, who describes the new interdisciplinary collaboration as unique and unusual.
In addition to the researchers already affiliated with the new Center of Excellence, StemPhys – three at the Niels Bohr Institute and three at the Panum Institute, 12 new PhDs, six postdocs and an associate professor will be hired.