Cartoon: “National Spotlight,” Antara Rao.
A pluripotent stem cell is a cell that can 1) self-renew and 2) differentiate into any cell in the body. For decades, the only pluripotent cell scientists could study were embryonic stem cells (ESCs), derived—as the name suggests—from rejected embryos thrown out by in vitro fertilization clinics. Despite allowing researchers to make key discoveries in most fields of biology and medicine, ESCs have been subject to intense controversy over the years, and many states still refuse to fund its research. In the midst of the embryonic stem cell debate, in 2012, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for creating a protocol to reprogram any cell into an “induced pluripotent stem cell,” or iPSC. As reprogrammed mature cells instead of cells derived from embryos, iPSCs created a new dimension to stem cell research, one that bypassed the ethical debate. Since its discovery, iPSC technology has really taken off, to the point that some people are suggesting that they completely replace ESCs. But should they really?
Since 2012, Antara Rao has worked with SSSCR to raise awareness about stem cell science and encourage students to get involved in research. She has served as president of SSSCR’s UC Berkeley chapter and is now the Communications and Sponsorship Coordinator for SSSCR-International’s Executive Committee. Antara’s past research has included 3D differentiation of human Embryonic Stem Cells (hESCs) for potential therapeutic application to Parkinson’s and Huntington’s Disease, and she plans to continue working on clinically relevant stem cell research as a PhD candidate at the University of California, San Francisco, studying Developmental and Stem Cell Biology. Outside of lab, she keeps herself sane with some of her other interests: baking, board games, Kathak dance, and historical literature.