Continuing our series of talking with researchers within the field of Regenerative Medicine, I had the pleasure of interviewing Daniel Youngstrom, PhD. He has recently finished a doctorate at Virginia Tech and plans on pursuing a post-doc position in a lab studying mesenchymal precursor cells within tendons. Below is an excerpt of an interview he gave for the CORE newsletter, for which I am the editor:
Tell us about your research project and what you have learned from it.
I am interested in the mechanobiology of stem cell fate decisions, including how stem cells interpret mechanical stimulation to direct their differentiation. Cells within musculoskeletal tissues experience loading patterns, and it turns out that how cells experience exercise may play a significant role in damage propagation and repair. My research project involves culturing adult mesenchymal stem cells in a bioreactor: a device that applies tuned physical and chemical stimuli to mimic the in vivo environment. By doing so, we can observe changes in gene expression associated with tendon differentiation, and measure changes in tissue biomechanics resulting from cell-mediated anabolism. In this system we have learned that stem cells optimally respond to a certain window of strain magnitude, and over- or under-stimulation decreases the efficacy of tenogenic differentiation in our model. This provides valuable clues necessary for preconditioning cells prior to transplantation, for growing graft material in the lab, or for designing rehabilitation protocols with an ideal level of stimulation.
What was your most exciting discovery while working in this lab?
Generally, I think the discovery that adult stem cells can regenerate tendon is incredible. There are no effective pharmacological treatments for tendinopathies, so the prospect of using cells as medicine was exciting and novel for me when I entered this field. Discoveries in our lab are helping to optimize cell culture conditions to further improve tendon healing. Specifically, one of our studies, recently published in the Journal of Orthopaedic Research, demonstrated the dependency of stem cell differentiation on strain magnitude. I am delighted to be a part of the engine that is improving cell therapy.
What has been your most difficult barrier in this field of research?
The field of tendon research is small relative to many other tissues, and there are important fundamental questions that are still unanswered. This means that there are many opportunities in the field for new investigators, but it also means that we don’t have a large toolkit available to tackle big issues: like developing effective treatments for tendinopathies. Musculoskeletal function is essential to maintaining high quality of life, so I’d love to see more talent and money dedicated to increasing tendon healthspan.
How has your experience at the benchtop affected your perspective on orthopedic medicine?
Working at the benchtop is exciting. I enjoy making connections between cell biology, tissue mechanics and musculoskeletal function, and I find this holistic view to help keep things in perspective. However, an even better question for me would be: how has my experience working with orthopedic surgeons affected my perspective as a scientist? Working alongside practicing clinicians has greatly changed my views about what the
important questions are, and shifted my focus toward translational technologies. I think it would be valuable for all researchers in biotechnology-related fields to have some level of exposure to the clinic, if for nothing else than to see how their work has the potential to impact real people and animals.
How do you envision your research impacting clinical practice and what direction do you see your research continuing to evolve into?
I hope that my current research will improve the efficacy of stem-cell based medicine, and provide more options to individuals suffering from acute or chronic tendinopathies. In veterinary medicine, stem cell therapy is becoming increasingly widespread. It is only a matter of time until off-the-shelf regenerative medicine products are readily available for humans in the US. Our increasing knowledge of the cell biology of adult stem cell-mediated regeneration will continue to inform the development of future therapies.
Our young physicians would love some advice on how they can become active in translational research: from the benchtop to the clinic. What advice would you give them?
Collaborate. Regenerative medicine is highly interdisciplinary, and collaborations between researchers and clinicians are essential for generating new ideas and assembling teams with the expertise necessary to impact lives. Attend scientific meetings and search for opportunities to work with researchers in the academic sector. It is to the advantage of both parties – and the patients who will ultimately benefit – for scientists and clinicians to work together.