Interview with NYSCF Fellow Chris Fasano
NYSCF Fellow Dr. Christopher Fasano recently published a paper in which he was able to create floor plate tissue from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). This is the first study shown to derive floor plate tissue from hESCs. Read an interview with Chris here.
Did any experiences in your childhood shape your interest in science and medicine?
I cannot think of any one experience that really pushed me towards science. If you ask my parents they might tell you I was a very inquisitive child”_. always asking what and why. I used to laugh when they told me that, but thinking back now, that could have been the early beginning of my scientific career. After all, the most important question a scientist can ask is Why?
How did you end up becoming a scientist? Did you always want to be a researcher?
Throughout my life, science was one of those things that always came natural to me. I found myself looking forward to science class, or reading books on gravity and evolution. I think the one thing that really always intrigued me was the element of the unknown. Science is mysterious in a lot of ways as there are so many unanswered questions. I wanted to try and find some answers.
What disease are you specifically working on and how did you choose that disease?
Since as long as I can remember I have always been fascinated with the brain. To think that there is this spongy structure in our head that controls everything we do is quite amazing. More amazingly, this structure forms from one single cell. Can you imagine the journey that cell goes on? My research focus is trying to understanding how the human nervous system develops from this one cell. This obviously is an enormous task, but little bits of information can go a long way. For example, identifying one gene that might be critical for a certain neuron type to be generated may be key in discovering a therapeutic for a debilitating neurological disease. My research has implications in a variety of neurological diseases including Parkinson’s, ALS, Alzheimer’s, Spinal Cord injury and Macula Degeneration.
How many hours per week do you spend at the lab? Can you describe how you spend your time professionally? How is your time distributed over research, teaching, committee work, lecturing or presenting, and traveling?
All research, but in particular, human stem cell research is quite demanding. I like to use the analogy of stem cells being like children. The need your full attention, every single day of the week, there is no day off. They need to be fed and cared for, and if you take your eye off them for one day, they can do things you did not want them to do. But our job does not end there. We are always thinking, and always writing. No matter where we go, our minds are constantly creating ideas. Sometimes I will wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for a great experiment”_. I’ll reach for a pen, write it down, and then go back to sleep. So, yes I guess it can be a 24-hour day sometimes. But, I love what I do, and would not trade it for anything.
Can you explain your latest experiment in terms the public can understand?
Right now in the lab I am currently looking at different genes that turn on during the early stages of human nervous system development. If we can understand how and when these genes are turning on and off very early we can gain insight into how the brain develops normally, and be able to understand exactly what happens when things go wrong.
What qualities do you think distinguish scientists from other professions (lawyers, doctors, academics, etc)?
I believe my good friend and colleague Daylon James gave this answer, and I have to concur. Imagination”_ without a doubt. Not to say that other professionals are not creative, but without an imagination, a scientist will not make it. We constantly have to be thinking outside the box, and creating ideas sometimes out of very close to nothing. Our job is to solve problems that are almost impossible to solve. I always tell people it is like putting together a puzzle without the picture on the front of the box. It might take you 4 years just to get two pieces to link up. But when you do, the puzzle becomes a bit clearer. We may never solve the puzzle completely, but we will lay the groundwork for the people behind us.
What is your new paper about?
In the developing brain there are stem cells. These stem cells will give rise to all the cells in the brain. Again, think of stem cells as young children. They are very naÌøve, and need guidance to get their final destination. Parents help instruct their children to ensure they make the right choices as they are developing. Without this instruction, children can make the wrong choice ultimately leading to a bad outcome. In the developing brain there are signaling centers present that serve as the “parents” to the stem cells. They release molecules that the stem cells respond to allowing them to make the right choice in terms of their final fate and destination. One of the most critical signaling centers in the developing brain is called the floor plate. Using human embryonic stem cells we were able to generate this signaling center in a dish. With a limitless supply of these cells, we can now model the early stages of human neural development right in the lab, allowing for a simple and maniuatble platform to ask questions about a process we normally cannot see. This has huge potential in the field of stem cell biology and nervous system development.
Why is your work in the paper important and why is it exciting? What impact will this have on the field of stem cell research?
Studying early human nervous system development is difficult because it is very hard/impossible to acquire human tissue from that early in development. What we showed in our paper is that using human embryonic stem cells, we can mimic some very early steps in nervous system development that will allow us now to ask questions we could not normally ask. This has tremendous potential for uncovering new and exciting information we were previously unable to find.