Stem Cells: Our Lifelong Tissue Rejuvenators And Their Promise for Regenerative Medicine

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Simons Foundation Lectures are free public colloquia related to basic science and mathematics. These high-level talks are intended for professors, students, postdocs and business professionals, but interested people from the metropolitan area are welcome as well.
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Most of our cells are specialized to serve as muscle, nerve, blood, skin, or one of the body’s many other differentiated tissues. When these cells die in the course of disease, injury, or normal cellular aging, the body issues “911 calls” that are answered by stem cells, versatile companions that reside within each tissue, with the potential to replenish specialized cells lost during normal wear and tear. How do stem cells retain their remarkable capacity to regenerate tissue? Why are some stem cells, such as those of the skin, so extraordinarily good at making new tissue? And why are other stem cells, such as those of the heart and brain, more limited in their potential? These are some of the many questions that fascinate Rockefeller University’s Rebecca C. Lancefield Professor Elaine Fuchs, Ph.D.

Dr. Fuchs’s influential research on the biology of skin is clarifying the roles that stem cells play in building and regenerating tissues. Her laboratory has uncovered various molecular signals that tell skin stem cells when to make hair, when to rejuvenate the skin surface (epidermis), and when to focus instead on repairing tissue after the skin is wounded. By focusing on fundamental mechanisms, her work is shedding light on the mysteries of the body’s “fountain of youth” cells.  Although skin stem cells typically replenish only the skin and hair’s lost or dying cells, they are closely related to other stem cells, such as those of the cornea, breast, prostate, and lung. Studies by Dr. Fuchs and her collaborators have begun to reveal unforeseen opportunities for therapies involving skin stem cells, for example, turning them into corneal stem cells that may be able to correct certain kinds of blindness.

Dr. Fuchs is also pursuing the theory that tumors result from stem cells gone awry, raising the possibility that scientists could intervene in this process for cancer therapy. Her investigations are elucidating the broad questions of what happens to stem cells as we grow older, and whether changes in stem cells raise the risk of cancer as we age.  She will touch on all of these topics in her presentation.

About the Speaker

Elaine Fuchs is the Rebecca C. Lancefield Professor in Mammalian Cell Biology and Development at The Rockefeller University. She is also an Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Fuchs has published more than 280 papers and is internationally known for her research in skin biology, its stem cells and its associated human genetic disorders. Fuchs’ pioneered “reverse genetics,” a method of starting with protein and working one’s way up to elucidating the genetic basis of the human disorder that is caused by its mutations. Fuchs has applied her strategy to elucidate the genetic bases of a number of blistering skin disorders and tumors. Her current research focuses on the molecular mechanisms that underlie how stem cells of the skin are able to both self-renew long-term and to maintain and regenerate epidermis, sweat glands and hair follicles. She studies how stem cells make tissues by responding to signals from their neighbors, adjusting their program of gene expression and adopting specific fates. In addition to dissecting how these pathways are regulated in normal homeostasis, Fuchs also explores how stem cells are mobilized in wound repair and how abnormalities in stem cell behavior can lead to cancers. Overall, for over three decades, Fuchs has continued to devise and employ innovative and imaginative approaches to biomedical research, with emphasis on the skin.

Fuchs received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Princeton University, and after her postdoctoral research with Dr. Howard Green at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she joined the faculty at the University of Chicago in 1980. She stayed there until 2002 when she relocated to The Rockefeller University. Fuchs’ past awards and honors include the Presidential Young Investigator Award, the Richard Lounsbery Award from the National Academy of Sciences, the Novartis-Drew Award for Biomedical Research, the Dickson Prize in Medicine, the FASEB Award for Scientific Excellence, the Beering Award, the National Medal of Science, the L’Oreal-UNESCO Award and Charlotte Friend Memorial Award from the American Association for Cancer Research. In 2011, she received the Madison Medal, Passano Award, and Albany Prize in Medicine (with Shinya Yamanaka and James Thompson), and in 2012 received the March of Dimes Prize (with Howard Green). This year, she has received the Kligman-Frost Leadership Award from the Society of Investigative Dermatology, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Skin Foundation and the Pasarow Award for Cancer Research. Fuchs is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, The Institute of Medicine, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Society, European Molecular Biology Organization (foreign member) and Academy of the American Association for Cancer Research. She holds honorary doctorates from Mt. Sinai/New York University School of Medicine and from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Fuchs is also a past President of the American Society of Cell Biology, a recent President of the International Society for Stem Cell Research and is on the Board of Governors of the New York Academy of Sciences. She has trained over 25 graduate students and 100 postdoctoral fellows, many of whom are now independent researchers at major academic universities and medical schools throughout the world.

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