While most of us are stuffing ourselves with turkey and pumpkin pie at home on Thanksgiving Day, the staff at one Cedars-Sinai laboratory will be on the job, feeding stem cells.
"Stem cells do not observe national holidays," says Loren Ornelas-Menendez, the manager of a lab that converts samples of adult skin and blood cells into stem cells-the amazing "factories" our bodies use to make our cells. These special cells help medical scientists learn how diseases develop and how they might be cured.
Stem cells are living creatures that must be hand-fed a special formula each day, monitored for defects and maintained at just the right temperature. And that means the cell lab is staffed every day, 52 weeks a year.
These cells are so needy that Ornelas-Menendez jokes:
Many people have dogs. We have stem cells."
Millions of living stem cells are stored in the David and Janet Polak Foundation Stem Cell Core Laboratory at the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute. Derived from hundreds of healthy donors and patients, they represent a catalogue of human ills, including diabetes, breast cancer, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and Crohn's disease.
Cedars-Sinai scientists rely on stem cells for many tasks: to make important discoveries about how our brains develop; to grow tiny versions of human tissues for research; and to create experimental treatments for blindness and neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) that they are testing in clinical trials.
The lab's main collection consists of induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs, which mimic the all-powerful stem cells we all had as embryos. These ingenious cells, which Cedars-Sinai scientists genetically engineer from adult cells, can make any type of cell in the body-each one matching the DNA of the donor. Other types of stem cells in the lab make only one or two kinds of cells, such as brain or intestinal cells.
Handy and versatile as they are, stem cells are high-maintenance. A few types, such as those that make connective tissue cells for wound healing, can be fed as infrequently as every few days. But iPSCs require a daily meal to stay alive, plus daily culling to weed out cells that have started to turn into cells of the gut, brain, breast or other unwanted tissues.
So each day, lab staff suit up and remove trays of stem cells from incubators that are set at a cozy 98.6 degrees. Peering through microscopes, they carefully remove the "bad" cells to ensure the purity of the iPSCs they will provide to researchers at Cedars-Sinai and around the world.
While the cells get sorted, a special feeding formula is defrosting in a dozen bottles spread around a lab bench. The formula incudes sodium, glucose, vitamins and proteins. Using pipettes, employees squeeze the liquid into food wells inside little compartments that contain the iPSCs. Afterward, they return the cells to their incubators.
The lab's 10 employees are on a rotating schedule that ensures the lab is staffed on weekends and holidays, not just weekdays. On Thanksgiving Day this year, biomedical technician Louis Pinedo expects to make a 100-mile round trip from his home in Oxnard, California, to spend several hours at work, filling nearly 600 feeding wells. On both Christmas and New Year's Day, two employees are expected to staff the lab.
All this ceaseless effort helps make Cedars-Sinai one of the world's top providers of iPSCs, renowned for consistency and quality. Among the lab's many clients are major universities and the global Answer ALS project, which is using the cells in its search for a cure for this devastating disease.
That's why the lab's director, Dhruv Sareen, PhD, suggests that before you sit down to your Thanksgiving feast, why not lift a glass to these hard-working lab employees?
"One day the cells they tend could lead to treatments for diseases that have plagued humankind for centuries," he says. "And that's something to be truly thankful for."