Since watching Jurassic Park for the first time as a kid, I’ve been fascinated by the biology of cells and DNA, and the potential to make a dinosaur for real. While this particular dream is a long way off, my life as a research scientist has shown me all the other exciting possibilities that cells offer.
These days, my lab at the Montréal Neurological Institute and Hospital is growing stem cells in a dish to develop better treatments for Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease is an age-related movement disorder, characterized by rigidity and tremor, caused a loss of dopaminergic neurons over time. L-DOPA remains the most effective therapy for Parkinson’s. But it was discovered back in the 1960s and no other disease-modifying therapy has emerged since then.
This is partly due to the complexity of the disease, but also because we haven’t done a good enough job sharing our protocols and data in an open and accessible manner, so others can take the next step forward and avoid making the same mistakes or repeating the same experiments over and over again.
That’s why I’m giving my lab’s standard methods away over the next year — making them available to anyone who would like to access them.
A cure for Parkinson’s disease
You’d think I would keep this knowledge a secret. Science is a competitive field, and finding a way to cure a major disease can be the ticket to rarified air, access to major grant funding, papers in top journals, invitations to be a keynote speaker anywhere in the world and even a drug patent worth millions of dollars — all with the potential gold ticket to a Nobel Prize.
But modern science doesn’t work like that, at least not neuroscience. Diseases of the brain are incredibly complex and getting even close to halting the disease progression — and developing a potential cure — takes a massive amount of fundamental research done through collaborations.
Any breakthrough will come from a diverse team of collaborators who share data, so others can build on it. Only then will something ground-breaking emerge that can enter the clinic to offer patients a new lease on life, free of the worse effects of the disease.
I know that if my work is to make any kind of difference, it has to be put out into the public domain so it can be added to databases, then analyzed and reproduced by others in the field to ensure findings are consistent across labs.
We are growing 3D mini-brains
My lab works with human-induced pluripotent stem cells, or hiPSCs, which can be reprogrammed from the skin, blood or urine of any person. A pluripotent stem cell can be used to make any cell in the human body, all it needs are the right ingredients and some loving care.
In my group, we are using these cells to grow human neurons on a dish, so we can replicate the neurons affected in Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and neurodevelopmental disorders.
Not only are we generating neurons on 2D dishes, but we have been growing 3D neuronal organoids, or mini-brains, by the thousands, mimicking the human brain more closely then anything seen with 2D cultures.
At the same time, we have been fortunate that CRISPR genome editing has emerged, providing us with the tools to edit a gene at the base pair level. With all these tools now at our disposal, the time is ripe for new discoveries, but only by working with other academics, start-ups and large pharmaceutical companies — all with the main goal of treating these devastating disorders.
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We are covering new ground, and other labs can learn from our experience. Industry and government spend trillions every year on scientific research, when much of it has already been done. This duplication happens because researchers keep data to themselves, especially negative results. If they do publish the data openly, it’s often impossible to find or use in any practical way, so we need to try something different.
I hope others will pay it forward
Over the next year, I will publish my lab’s protocols and methods on this blog, where many groundbreaking scientists around the world are sharing their lab notebooks online.
Our results will also be shared openly, in keeping with our Open Science policy, which I hope will encourage others to pay it forward and make their results and methods available, leading to a truly open and collaborative scientific community that benefits everyone.
I hope my decision opens new avenues and helps me develop new collaborations. As a scientist, I will benefit from an open environment where I can use the data of others in my work. But more than that, we owe it to patients with neurological disease to be as open with our data and methods as much as possible.
So, please be my guest and use the methods and protocols from my group to help with your own work. And don’t forget to pay it forward.
And if you discover how to bring back the dinosaurs, just like in Jurassic Park, please name the first one after me, the Tommosaurus Rex.