Wisconsin team starts with skin, derives liver cells

By Mark Johnson of the Journal Sentinel, JSOnline.com

Just after 5 p.m. doors rattle shut and feet begin to shuffle past the narrow lab where Karim Si-Tayeb sits hunched over a microscope, all but invisible to the scientists leaving the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Si-Tayeb has already worked eight hours and will work five more, eyes locked on the living cells in his care. Under the microscope, their tiny colonies resemble constellations of tightly packed stars. They carry his ambition.

“A few months ago I was working and it struck me how incredibly cool this is,” he said, sliding a dish of unusual cells under the microscope, cells he had scientifically altered. “This revolution is occurring, and you are part of it.”

Early this year the 32-year-old postdoctoral student from France joined a biomedical revolution by reprogramming human skin cells back to their embryonic origin, just as James Thomson in Madison and Shinya Yamanaka in Japan did when they made headlines in November 2007. Now Si-Tayeb and his supervisor, Stephen A. Duncan, a Medical College professor, were engaged in the next great race.

In 2008, scientists began trying to turn the new reprogrammed cells into all of the building blocks doctors might use to treat a multitude of diseases. Cardiac cells to repair a damaged heart. Insulin-producing cells to help diabetics. Photoreceptor cells to restore lost vision.

The work would be crucial if stem cells were to fulfill their promise and begin a new wave of medicine.

Duncan and Si-Tayeb were tryingto become the first scientists to use the new technology to make liver cells. They hoped the liver cells would someday help patients with a relatively rare form of inherited diabetes called MODY (mature onset diabetes of the young). Reprogrammed cells from MODY patients could provide a microscopic view of the disease as it progresses and give scientists a target for drug testing.

The stakes were high for Si-Tayeb, still early in his career and dreaming of a big scientific paper with his name on it.

At night, Duncan lay awake worrying. When he did drift off to sleep, sometimes he dreamed of work, the anxiety flowing through him, waking him with a jolt. What if their analysis was flawed? What if while they worried and double-checked, another scientist published the same discovery? As much as he wanted to be first, Duncan vowed no corners would be cut.

“Rigor in science is everything,” he said. “Without it you have nothing.”

Their dilemma was now the dilemma of many in the field, an illustration of how a major advance alters the scientific landscape.

Click link above for complete article.