Pioneer British American Pharmacologist
Debananda S. Ningthoujam, PhD
If you cut off a newt’s tail, it can regrow it, and if a piece of zebra fish heart is sliced off, it can regenerate it. Why can’t humans do the same? Human beings have lost this ancestral regenerative capacity except for our ability to intermittently regenerate our skin, intestinal lining and blood cells. The liver is the only human organ with some level of regenerative capacity. Many scientists believe that we evolved to gradually lose the regenerative capacity in order to prevent cancers.
This is a question that has pondered several pathbreaking scientists. Previously scientists thought that cells in higher organisms such as mice and men have lost this plasticity and their differentiated cells are terminally fixed with no scope for regaining the stem-like potential. But one scientist changed this thinking forever. This scientist is world renowned for her forays into understanding and reprogramming of cell fates.
The scientist under the scanner is a renowned pharmaceutical biologist who made trailblazing contributions in nuclear reprogramming, heterokaryon production and stem cell biology.
Her researches have profound implications for ischemic limbs, muscle wasting, neurodegenerative and other human diseases.
Not only is this scientist’s field of study at the meeting point of several disciplines, her life itself is an amalgam of a diversity of experiences and cultures having born in London, growing up in France and Germany and finally getting higher education and career in USA. She speaks English, French and German with equal ease.
Who is this trailblazing scientist?
Helen was born in London in 1948. Till age 6, she stayed in USA as her father was a teacher of world history. At age 9, she and her sister stayed in a farm in Austria. But she grew up mostly in France and Germany as she led a peripatetic life following her father who was posted in Europe. Her mother was a teacher of literature. She speaks English, French and German equally fluently. Blau has a sister.
She did her BA from York University, UK (1969). Later, she received her MA (1970) and PhD (1975) degrees from Harvard University.
Helen then pursued postdoctoral training at UCSF (1975-78).
She has been in the Stanford faculty since 1978 and is now director of the Baxter Lab at Stanford University.
Her research has been focused on nuclear fusion, reprogramming, cell fate plasticity and, how bone marrow stem cells may regenerate brain tissues etc.
Blau was the first to demonstrate that nuclear reprogramming in heterokaryons can induce plasticity in terminally differentiated cells in mammals e.g. mice. In the 1980s, she fused certain body cells with muscle cells and found that they started expressing muscle genes. She thus proved for the first time that the so-called terminally differentiated cells are not ‘locked’ in a final state and can be reprogrammed through the formation of heterokaryons through cell fusion. This breakthrough finding was published in the prestigious journal Science.
Her group also designed novel hydrogel matrices for culturing adult stem cells and preventing loss of ‘stemness’ that happens when you grow them in plastic dishes.
She also found out that Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD)-a muscle wasting disease- is caused by deficiency of a protein called dystrophin and shortened telomeres.
Blau also demonstrated that knocking off certain tumor suppressor genes-genes that prevent onset of cancers-stimulate regeneration in mammals including humans. Her team showed that transient inactivation of tumor suppressor genes-Rb (retinoblastoma gene) and ARF-restored regenerative capacity in mammalian muscle cells.
Dr Blau is married to David Spiegel, a Stanford psychologist, and they have two children, son Daniel, and daughter Julia. Her son is a Harvard-trained architect and her daughter is a Yale law school graduate.
Helen Blau has written some books on regenerative medicine. She is a Co-Editor of “Neuromuscular Development and Disease.”
Awards and honours
Blau has got innumerable accolades for her scientific accomplishments.
Helen was a Basil O’Connor Faculty Fellow (1978-81), William Hume Faculty Scholar (1981-84), Career Development Awardee, NIH (1984-89), Career Recognition Awardee of WICB, American Society of Cell Biology (ASCB) (1992). She won the FASEB Excellence in Science Award in 1999. She also got the MERIT award from the NIH (1995-2005) and Nobel Forum Lecture, Sweden (1995).
She has also received McKnight award (2001), Fulbright Senior Specialist, Institut Pasteur (2007), and Fulbright Senior Specialist, Institut Curie (2011).
Memberships of professional Societies
Helen is a member of several scientific societies. She is an elected member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
She also got elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Heart Association, ASBMB, ASCB, FASEB and International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), among others.
In addition, Blau is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Ellison Medical Foundation and Harvard Board of Overseers.
Blau has been president of American Society for Developmental Biology (1994-95), and International Society of Differentiation (2002-2004).
Dr Blau received an honorary doctorate from the University of Nijmegen, Holland, in 2003.
Dr Blau is on the editorial boards of several frontline scientific journals including FASEB Journal, Stem Cell Reports, Differentiation, Genes to Cells, Experimental Cell Research, and Advances in Stem Cell Aging and Current Opinion in Genetics and Development. She is Associate Editor of FASEB Journal and Senior Editor of Genes to Cells.
Blau was chosen for the 7th Annual AACR-Irvin Weinstein Foundation Distinguished Lectureship (2011), Robert Stewell Lectureship (2004), Isadore Smith Lectureship (2002), Distinguished Lecturer in Regenerative Medicine (2012) and Ida Green Distinguished Professorship.
Regarding the excitement of discovery in science, Blau says “I like to look down the microscope and see things other people haven’t seen.” About juggling a hectic career in science with family life, she feels that one stimulated the other. She says “I think I was a better mother because I loved my work and a better scientist because I did not invest my entire life in my career.”
Regarding Helen’s passionate interest in cell biology, her husband, David Spiegel, used to encourage her in the beginning of her career by telling her “You think like a cell. You have a special gift and you have to realize it.”
Helen Blau’s wonderful life and career will inspire several generations of aspiring young scientists, especially those with strong interests in cell biology, stem cell biology, and regenerative medicine.