The stem cell revolution
When I was in graduate school, I had to perform weekly dissections of neonatal rat brains to isolate primary neurons for my experiments. It was not a particularly enjoyable process and an ungrateful one too. After spending 2 – 3 hours meticulously dissecting a dozen brains under a microscope, I would be left with barely enough cells for one experiment. And if the cells were not happy when I plated them, that week would go down the drain.
The reason for performing these painful dissections is that “primary” cells, that are isolated directly from the animal are more representative of reality than the use of artificially developed (and easier to use) cell lines. Cell lines can be used for some “quick and dirty” preliminary experiments, but in order for your results to hold any water, they need to be validated in primary cells and animal models.
But in 2006, Shinya Yamanaka and his team published a breakthrough study, showing that adult cells can be converted into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), which can then be differentiated into virtually any cell type in the body. iPSC-derived human cells became a rich resource for biomedical research, but there was still a long road ahead. Researchers needed to identify and optimize specific conditions to direct iPSCs to differentiate into discrete cell lineages. And of course, with neurons in particular, this was no easy feat.
Importance of glial cells
In our brain, neurons grow and function in a rich nurturing environment that is provided by several types of glial cells, including astrocytes, which derive their name from their star-like shape. In a sense, neurons are “spoiled” by astrocytes, which provide a nourishing substrate for them to grow on and secrete growth factors necessary for their survival and development.
While most cell types can grow on plastic, I had to dip glass coverslips in acid, thoroughly wash them and coat them with particular substrates to make the neurons feel welcome. However, one can provide a much better environment, by seeding neurons onto a lawn of previously plated astrocytes to partially mimic the conditions they see in vivo (in a live animal/human).
iPSC-derived neurons can also be picky, but the beauty of this system is that we can derive both glia and neurons from the same human stem cells and then co-culture them together.
How “Attraction” was born
Last year, there was an open call for stem cell focused artwork. Despite the fact that I had made “Sunrise” a year earlier, I decided to use this as an opportunity to create something new. Besides, at that point I already had a few images earmarked on my Pinterest board.
It so happened that the deadline for submission was a only a month away and we were about to go away for Spring Break with our kids. We were planning to do a road trip to Montreal, and after spending several late nights setting the groundwork for my new project at home, I decided to take it with me. In a pizza box. Thankfully we didn’t need to fly!
We spent most of our vacation walking around the city, including stumbling upon a very cool Barbie exhibit. And then at night, we would come back to the hotel and I would get to work. The narrow bar-like table along the wall of the hotel room was not very conducive to being able to spread out my art supplies, but I got it done on time.
Given the fact that at the time, I was in the middle of creating my “Hope” series, it seemed natural to include the white jewel in the work as well, representing the guidepost that the cells are striving towards.
While this work ended up not making it into the exhibition, I am glad I made it. It gave me an opportunity to develop a few new techniques that I later implemented in my other pieces.
As a side note, I later created a tiny version of this work in the shape of a pin that is available in my Etsy Shop!
And if you are interested in the original, you can find it here.
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