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Women & Science lecture gives glimpse of how scientists are using stem cells to model autism spectrum disorder

Carol Marchetto and Ursula Bellugi

Carol Marchetto and Ursula Bellugi

Carol Marchetto, a senior staff scientist in the lab of Salk professor Fred Gage, spoke to a group of about 100 business and community leaders at the Salk Institute’s Women & Science event on July 23. Marchetto presented her topic, “Using human pluripotent stem cells to model autism spectrum disorders,” following an introduction by Ursula Bellugi, professor and director of the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience.

Marchetto explained that scientists have long been limited to studying the brains of patients who had passed away, which doesn’t let them fully test and observe neurons’ behavior. “When you study postmortem samples, you cannot get any functional information,” she says. By using induced pluripotent cells, however, scientists are able to create simplified models of autism spectrum disorder in the lab. To do this, scientists take cells from a living patient (for example, skin cells), and revert or reprogram those cells to become stem cells. These reprogrammed stem cells can then be coaxed to grow into specific tissues, like neurons, that retain the genetic material of the patient.

“Today, pluripotent stem cells allow scientists to capture a patient’s individual genome and enable them to model neurological disorders,” Marchetto explains. Scientists will be able to use this method to study other diseases, including schizophrenia, Williams syndrome and bipolar disorders.

This year, Salk is proud to announce the launch of the Salk Women & Science Innovation Grant and Special Awards Initiative. These grant awards will provide critical seed funding for high-risk research projects in stages too early to attract traditional funding. The reality is that too many novel ideas do not receive funding because of the level of risk. Innovation grants and special awards, ranging from $10,000 to $100,000, will allow for the development of promising ideas so that they can eventually attract larger grants.

Salk Institute Women & Science

We hope that you will partner with Salk Women & Science by making a gift to the Innovation Grant and Special Awards Initiative. For more information about the Salk Women & Science program, contact Betsy Reis, director of Donor Relations, at 858.453.4100 x1426 or email breis@salk.edu.