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Elaine Fuchs's studies of skin and hair cells may eventually lead to a cure for baldness, but she manipulates stem cells to address larger health questions.
“I look immediately at the central figure,” Fuchs says to her husband as they gaze at Picasso's Three Women at the Spring, “and I follow her hair.” Eventually, she tells him, she follows the folds of the woman's robe and the stream of water she directs into a brown pitcher. “I get a sense of the river here, with the river as a part of the flow of life.” And over on the left side of the canvas, she says, “the exposed features of the women are tantalizing, in a way that suggests fertility.” Much of what Fuchs sees in the paintings that inspire her carries back to biology.
Hansen, a professor of philosophy and education at Columbia University's Teachers College, has a different interpretation, focusing instead on geometry, on the flatness of Picasso's figures.
Trailing the couple on this museum outing is a film crew making a documentary on women in science. The crew is supported by L'Oréal, the French cosmetics company that partners with the UNESCO Foundation to fund the prestigious L'Oréal-UNESCO Awards in the Life Sciences, given every other year to five outstanding women scientists, one from each continent. Vignettes from this documentary will be presented at a ceremony in Paris in early March, celebrating Fuchs and the four other 2010 award recipients. It is the latest in a string of accolades for Fuchs, an HHMI investigator since 1988. She also received the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama in a 2009 White House ceremony.
Fuchs's stem cell work is among the discoveries that led to these honors. In the late 1990s, she and her students and postdocs generated mice with thick fur coats, suggesting that they might have stumbled on a clue about how hair follicle stem cells work. Several years later, her team devised a method to test the hypothesis. They attached green fluorescent markers to infrequently dividing cells from adult mouse tissue, which they thought might be stem cells, and then purified, cultured, and grafted the cells onto hairless mice. When the mice grew green fluorescent hair and skin, the scientists knew the tagged cells were in fact stem cells.
With her colleague Peter Mombaerts, Fuchs later cloned healthy mice from these stem cells using a technique known as nuclear transfer. They removed the nucleus of a mouse oocyte and replaced it with the nucleus of a hair follicle stem cell. They then grew the hybrid cell in vitro to the blastocyst stage and implanted those cells into the uterus of a mouse. While only a few percent of the clones survived to become healthy mice, the experiment demonstrated that skin stem cells can be successfully reprogrammed to a pluripotent state with the capacity to generate all 220 different cell types in the body.
The reports of these experiments—published in 2007 in Cell, Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—led to a flurry of media attention. Such attention, however, is not really what Fuchs is interested in. To her, the real questions about stem cells are much more basic than creating hair or cloned animals.
“What I really want to know is why embryonic stem cells can choose any tissue pathway, while adult stem cells are much more restricted in their options,” she says. Yes, she has shown that skin stem cells can be reprogrammed to generate a whole mouse. But more important is what happens in nature, when skin stem cells turn into skin, hair, or sebaceous glands, but never—without laboratory manipulation—a neuron or a kidney cell.
Photo: Peter Ross