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Q&A: Elaine Fuchs talks about stem cell research and winning the 2009 L’Oreal-UNESCO award

Erin Podolak

BioTechniques spoke with Fuchs about her research, being a female scientist, and the state of stem cell research in the United States.

Biochemist Elaine Fuchs is the Rebecca C. Lancefield professor of Mammalian Cell Biology and Development at Rockefeller University, in New York City. In September, Fuchs was announced as one of the recipients of the 2009 National Medal of Science, and in October, she was awarded the L’Oreal-UNESCO (United National Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) award for women in science. BioTechniques spoke with Fuchs to find out about her research with epidermal and hair follicle stem cells, why it’s important for women to go into science, and how she thinks the United States stacks up in the global research community.

Q: What can you tell me about the research that won you the National Medal of Science and the L’Oreal-UNESCO award for women scientists?

A: Well, my lab moved to Rockefeller University in 2002, and we’ve been focused on skin and hair follicle stem cells. We study them in their native state for the duration of their life cycle, which opens the door for us to make contributions to understanding other adult stem cells.

Q: Can you describe your current project?

A: We are trying to understand how stem cells transition from a dormant state to actively producing stem cells. Hair follicles are ideal because they can be maintained easily in culture, enabling us to study this process in slow motion.

Q: Why is it important to understand how stem cells start producing new cells?

A: There is a general problem of getting stem cells and neighboring cells to actively produce new cells. If we understand how this works, we could generate embryonic stem cells, which would lead to other contributions to the field.

Q: What practical applications could your research have?

A: Currently, we’re interested in understanding how to increase the ability to grow stem cells in culture. Growing stem cells in this way is already used to treat patients with severe burns, but we hope it could be used to treat disorders like blindness. Patients who are blind in both eyes have no source for corneal stem cells, but if we knew how to take skin or hair follicle cells and create corneal cells, that would really open the door for clinical applications.

Q: Your lab has over thirty members, what other projects are you working on?

A: We really want to know how to grow stem cells, but we also want to be able to grow specific cells and learn how to coax them to act in ways that are not inherent in their nature.

Q: The L’Oreal-UNESCO award honors women scientists. How important it is for women to be involved in scientific research?

A: It is very important for women to get involved in all types of research. We’re 50% of the intellectual power out there. When I first started out, I came from a background in chemistry and there were very few women in the field. That has changed somewhat, but there is a lot of space in the higher ranks [of the research community] where women are still missing. As more women join in, it will increase the scientific power out there.

Q: What do you think about the state of stem cell research in the United States, especially given that President Obama recently opened up federal funding for embryonic stem cell research?

A: What President Obama did is a step. However, it’s important to note that federal funding is still not permitted to fund the creation of stem cells. The US needs to invest in federal funding for basic research, and also science education, because young people who are interested in science continually peel off at the collegiate level. Training is also not what it should be, and we’ve lost our edge internationally.

Q: What about the international research community? Is the US involved as we should be?

A: It is very important that we have the best [stem cell] lines and capabilities. I’d like to see our government expand support because we’ve lost some footing internationally. Being hampered since 2001 has really pushed the private sector to develop stem cell research programs. There are hurdles to push and while the private sector is meeting some needs, there is more to do.

Q: What is the greatest danger the US faces right now in terms of falling behind?

A: The problem is limited visas. We need to bring the talent here and foster an international research community within the United States. If we hamper the ability of people to get here, it could really keep us back as an international biomedical leader.