Dawn Cornelison is on a mission to counteract the effects of aging, the effects of muscular dystrophy, and other neuromuscular diseases. The assistant professor of Biological Sciences must first find answers to the crucial questions regarding the robust nature of muscle regeneration.
Take a good, hard mental image of a long line of people stretched for blocks. If you expand the line to roughly 100,000, this is the number of people waiting for an organ transplant. The imbalanced patient-to-organ ratio leaves many to die while waiting their turn. In response, some researchers try to tap into animal organs to save human lives, but those organs do not always work.
Research in the University of Missouri’s Division of Animal Sciences may help solve this medical debacle by using genetic modification. When an organ goes from one animal to another (like to a human), preexisting antibodies in the human bind to the organ’s sugar molecules and kill the organ, making it useless. “When you take a pig cell and transfer it to a human, the molecule is immediately recognized as foreign,” explains MU’s Animal Science Professor, Randall Prather. “Within minutes you’ll get hyperacute rejection, and the cells will be destroyed.”
Although Cornelison doesn’t want her research to come to an end anytime soon, she is aiming at discovering information that will help other scientists formulate cures. And even though she almost quit graduate school to become a doctor, Cornelison says she “wouldn’t be doing anything else, regardless of whatever challenges might come up.”
When doing research, Cornelison says, “you have to have a pretty high tolerance for failure bordering on extreme stubbornness… You’ve got to be able to live with not getting things to work all the time.” All of her research is funded by external grants, which means she has to secure external funding in order to pay her fellow researchers, house the lab’s mice, or buy materials. Currently, Cornelison is receiving funding from the National Institutes of Health and the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Cornelison’s research examines muscle stem cells in order to uncover the mechanics behind muscle regeneration. Based on her findings, she hopes that other scientists can potentially devise cures for neuromuscular diseases such as dystrophy.
Cornelison initially started college as a chemistry major, but after taking a biology course she realized her passion was for natural science. Soon afterward, she realized she was hooked on lab work. “I remember the feeling whenever I did an experiment,” she recalls, “and realize that I now know something that no one else in the world knows, and I get to go tell them about it.”
Cornelison mainly conducts research on mice, though her ultimate goal is to understand muscle stem cell behavior in humans. Mice serve as a good model for satellite cell activity because they are mammals with muscles and genes similar to humans.
Prather gives a tour of the “Wall of Pork and Beef,” which highlights some of the important research projects on which he has collaborated over the years.
Our main focus in the Kirk Lab is developing stem cell therapies for Batten Disease, a fatal neurodegenerative disease in children. We propose that transplanting an entire self-sustaining population of cells, a neural stem cell (NSC) niche, would greatly enhance survival of patients and alleviate some symptoms; and we have developed a way to produce a NSC niche-like structure in vitro. My part in the project is to test for cell death within this structure by using Trypan Blue Exclusion and TUNEL assays. My preliminary results show that cell death is present in no overt pattern within the structure. After proposing that cell death is taking place in more differentiated cells that cannot be maintained in these basic culture conditions, our next step is to prove that these differentiated cells are actually the ones dying and to attempt to prevent death by the addition of serum. Ultimately, we hope one day to develop a method for in vivo transplantation of the entire NSC niche-like structure.