Stem Cells Maestro Interviewed

Sarah Heilshorn, a grad student of chemical engineering at Caltech initially wanted to research on green chemistry. But after hearing a talk from Caltech engineer David Tirell who was designing synthetic biomolecules, she became captivated by the idea of engineering organisms for medicinal use. Sarah now engineers proteins to help neural stem cells heal injured spines and brains at Standford as the head of her lab.

Why is a healing spinal cord injury harder than healing cuts on the hand?

Injury to the spine is usually caused by twisting or crushing which causes bone fragments to float around and compromise the flow of blood. Also the reason that nerves in the spine and brain doesn’t heal as well might be because of the blood-brain barrier that protects our central nervous system can damper the effects of drugs. Whereas the nerves in our hands called peripheral nerves can regenerate rather well.

How does engineering proteins to help stem cells regenerate neurons work?

Proteins are composed of amino acids that are small molecules. These proteins form into modules when they combine where they have distinct jobs – some modules help proteins bind to cells, while some make proteins behave like springs. I then mix these modules to create unique proteins that function differently.

What make your work different from the others that did it before you?

We increased the chances of the cells we generated by encapsulating them with engineered protective proteins. These proteins then direct the damaged neurons and the stem cells to connect.

How could a single approach nurse so many diseases and neurological injuries?

Our approach is to directly inject the material into the affected part of the spine or brain. Other than that, we create proteins that are customized to coax repair across a broad variety of traumas and cell types.

How do you get away from stress and unwind when you are away from work and your lab?

Dancing is fun and inspiring for me especially when there are dancers that incorporate engineering and science in their performances.