Stefan Tarnawsky Jul 13, 2014
Each year the MD/PhD students at IUSM invite a physician scientist to Indianapolis to discuss our profession. This year, Dr. Kendall Lee, a neurosurgeon from the Mayo Clinic spoke about his use of deep brain stimulation to treat neurodegenerative disorders. It was reassuring to hear that it is possible for an MD/PhD to be integrate both clinical work and research into their career. At the end of his talk Dr Lee was asked what skill he believed had contributed most to his success. I was amazed by his answer. Rather than hard work, skill, or perseverance, he said that his most valued trait was “the ability to kill a research project. Cold.” This week, I finally grasped what he meant.
I study developmental hematopoiesis – the origin of earliest blood cells. My project has used two model systems: mouse embryos and human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). I’ve been fascinated by iPSCs since they were first discovered in my freshman year of college. These are adult somatic cells (such as skin or blood cells) that have be transformed into stem cells capable of producing any cell type in the body. I wrote my freshman thesis on the theoretical uses of these cells and their tremendous potential in medicine was recognized in 2012r with a Nobel Prize to their discoverer: Dr Shinya Yamanaka. In short, I have a long-standing interest with iPSCs and their high-profiled status make them a boon to any researcher seeking to get their work noticed.
Despite their appeal, iPSCs are problematic: they are difficult to maintain and harder still to differentiate into your cell type of interest. It took me a full year to succeed in changing an iPS cell into a macrophage. But although changing a cell’s fate may be a neat lab trick, it’s not the focus of my work. I thought I had a good plan what to do with iPSC-derived macrophages, but I recently found out that it was not feasible. I was faced then with a difficult choice: continue working with them in the hopes that a new use for them would emerge, or retire the cells indefinitely and focus on my mouse work.
My emotions made the choice very difficult. I really liked these cells. They had tremendous potential and by using them my research would appeal to a broader audience. Yet, I had no specific use for them; they were no longer a useful tool. Keeping them in the hopes of future developments would divert my attention from more promising and tangible projects. I was reminded of Dr Lee’s advice: know how to kill your projects. And so I have. My iPS cells are now frozen – indefinitely. I will no longer have to come to lab every day –rain or shine, weekends, holidays, etc. – to keep them alive and happy. In a way, I feel defeated – I worked with them for a year and have nothing to show for it. But like a good card player, a researcher must also know when to lay down their hand and await new opportunities.