‘The secret to longevity lies in stem cell research’

20 Jun 2023

Image: © pinkeyes/Stock.adobe.com

PhD researcher Áine Varley from the University of Galway explains her stem cell research which aims to unlock the secret to immortality in jellyfish-like sea creatures.

“As a young child, I was a massive fan of the Horrible Science books written by Nick Arnold and illustrated superbly by Tony de Saulles,” explains PhD researcher Áine Varley of her inspiration to become a scientist. She describes the series as her “first temptation into research”. It was educational “in an entertaining way”, she says. “From then on, I wanted to be a biologist and my pursuits became more specialised as I progressed through my education.”

Varley graduated in 2019 with a BSc in Genetics and Cell Biology from Dublin City University. She then worked as a research assistant in the Frank lab at the University of Galway and soon began her PhD in stem cell research. In May 2023, her PhD work was published as a cover article in the international journal Current Biology.

‘This research has implications for our understanding of how stem cells contribute to tissue regeneration’

Tell us about your current research.

The paper we recently published described the developmental potential of adult stem cells in an immortal cnidarian Hydractinia – a creature which is a close relative of the jellyfish. Our team, led by Prof Uri Frank at the Centre for Chromosome Biology in the University of Galway, established this animal as a model organism for stem cell research.

A major question in stem cell biology is about the ability of these cells to generate other cell types, such as neurons and muscle, throughout life. In the study, we addressed the problem by transplanting a single stem cell from a donor animal to a recipient. The single transplanted stem cell was genetically labelled by fluorescent dyes, making it visible in the tissue of the recipient.

A young woman with red hair, a white lab coat and blue gloves looks into a large microscope.

Image: Áine Varley

We found that, following several months, progeny of the single transplanted stem cell gradually displaced the recipient’s own cells. Eventually, a complete takeover occurred, thereby the recipient animal became genetically identical to the donor. This ultimately meant that one single stem cell could become any other type of cell in the animal.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Hydractinia adult stem cells are functionally similar to human embryonic cells. The technology developed in this project allowed us easy access to embryonic-like cells in an adult animal.

Hydractinia, like many other cnidarians, can regenerate whole bodies from small tissue fragments. Another unusual feature of cnidarians is the apparent lack of ageing; indeed, some cnidarians, such as corals, are known to live for thousands of years without experiencing any decline in their health. The study has implications for our understanding of how stem cells function to contribute to tissue regeneration.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Hydractinia is an emerging model so it means that many techniques are not yet established. This means that you have to develop many things yourself. This can be a blessing and a curse in its own way; technique development can be time consuming and frustrating, but it ultimately makes you a better problem-solver and scientist.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Well, for most people their idea of what a scientist is like is taken from films where you have an Einstein-esque figure in a white lab coat. Most people in our field look very different from each other, much like any other workplace. A kind of unexpected trend we are seeing in new scientists is that many of them are quite heavily tattooed with illustrations relating to their field/research.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Ideally, the creation and utilisation of sustainable energy sources. Many sources exist but I would love to see full accessibility to these resources for everyone, not only to those who are wealthy enough to afford solar panels or a new electric car.

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