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Scientist Profile - Kristin Baldwin

Milestone Stem Cell Work that Opens the Door to Exciting New Therapies

Kristin Baldwin, as Assistant Professor in Scripps Research’s Department of Cell Biology, uses cutting-edge stem cell technology, such as reprogramming and cloning, and genetic engineering, to understand the brain and the causes of neurological diseases, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and schizophrenia.  Her fascinating work is geared toward creating new disease models to better understand disease causes and rapidly identify potential treatments.

Her team at Scripps Research received recent notoriety for their breakthrough work in breeding live mice from mouse skin cells, advancing a technique that could offer an alternative to the controversial use of embryonic stem cells.  The work which was reported by the journal, Nature, involved reprogramming normal cells to create what are known as induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (IPS).  Scientists had been trying to produce mice with induced pluripotent cells for several years.

The milestone work opens the door to the development of exciting therapies, such as using a patient’s own cells to grow replacement organs.

Two teams of Chinese researchers also recently reported success in similar experiments, creating mice that were as much as 95 percent genetically matched to the adult mouse whose cells were used.  But Kristin and her group’s techniques appeared more effective in one key respect – the success rate with which they produced live mice.  Her best cell line produced live pups 13 percent of the time, compared with 3.5 percent and 1 percent reported by the Chinese groups.

“Reprogramming by iPS cell technology is one of the most exciting areas in research right now,” said Kristin, “because these experiments challenge fundamental paradigms of basic biology and, at the same time, contribute to a technology that offers enormous potential for therapeutic advances.”

The breakthrough opens the enticing possibility that iPS cells might be manipulated to grow replacement organs such as hearts and livers, or to provide healthy replacements for damaged cells, such as neurons to cure paralysis, Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s disease.  Because such cells would be derived directly from the patient, the rejection problems that plague conventional transplant therapies would be eliminated.  Another hope is that iPS cells will be used to create new disease models that will foster better understanding of disease causes and more rapid identification of potential treatments.

“The work was very rewarding and I think it’s the wave of the future in terms of investigating the cause of disease,” said Kristin.  “It overturns what we previously believed about developmental biology and shows that our preconceived notions may have been wrong.  From it, we now have a platform for new experiments and the technology offers the field the possibility of finding new cures for diseases.”

Kristin credits a combination of hard work and teamwork for her group’s success in moving the technology forward at a record pace.  This included many young graduate and postdoctoral students, who worked seven days a week around the clock for four months.  She also emphasizes a close collaboration with Sergey Kuprianov, Ph.D., who heads Scripps Research’s Mouse Genetics core.

“The team refused to admit defeat,” said Kristin.  “Science is 99 percent failure and you only succeed once every few years, but the successes keep you going.”

Her work on cloning began while she was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University working in the laboratory of Nobel Laureate Dr. Richard Axel, where she cloned an entire mouse from a single neuron from its nose – something no one had ever done before.  The experiment pays homage to Woody Allen’s film, Sleeper, a slapstick comedy in which scientists attempt to clone a dead dictator using only his nose.

“Some of my interest in cloning comes from the fact that this is a brand-new science,” said Kristin.  “There’s an attraction to succeeding where others have not.”

Kristin’s breakthrough work was supported by a prestigious Pew Scholars award and through funding from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, the Esther B. O’Keeffe Charitable Foundation and the Whitehall Foundation in Palm Beach, and the Shapiro Family Foundation in Beverly Hills.

“We are so appreciative to everyone who supported this work,” said Kristin.  “This type of high risk, groundbreaking research would not have been possible otherwise.”

Kristin is also involved in exposing underprivileged students to science in a most accessible way.  In collaboration with artist Amy Chase Gulden, she has genetically engineered living, growing paintings using E. coli bacteria as paint.  The team’s work was performed with high school students in the Harlem DNA Lab, and funded by the World Science Festival.  The resulting prints of vines, trees, and other natural elements mounted in glass petri dishes was recently exhibited at the Serrano Contemporary gallery in New York City in a show entitled, Growing Impressions.