How data unlocks the healing power of stem cells
Among nature’s endless fascinations, the relationship between individual actions and group outcomes is one that can be seen almost everywhere. From the impact of asteroids on solar systems to the spread of infectious diseases and the strange shapes made by flocking birds, the emergent properties of groups are powerful, but not always well-understood. Within living organisms, individual cells can only stay stable, divide, or die; but individually they can’t decide when to grow tissue and when to stop. Yet that is what happens when cell groups interact and living tissue self-repairs to heal some kind of injury. Based at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Regenerative Medicine, Linus Schumacher is an interdisciplinary scientist who combines biology, physics, and mathematics to study this phenomenon at the cellular level. He leads a research group modelling interactions between stem cells (those potent basic pieces of life’s make-up that can self-renew and, in some cases, repair damaged tissue) and the other cells that make up living tissue.
Data is the life-blood of Dr Schumacher’s research, feeding the mathematical and computational simulations that help him and his team look for patterns and test different hypotheses. “Cell interactions and movement are widespread in tissue repair,” he notes, “and we need to understand their mechanistic role to develop therapeutic strategies.” While large amounts of imaging and molecular data are being generated, many scientists are unable to utilise the full biological information without the aid of computational biology. “My work combines data analysis with mathematical modelling to make quantitative and predictive conclusions in close collaboration with experimentalists,” Dr Schumacher adds. It’s a process that can shed new light on the uses of experimental data, and is important for developing a better understanding of how things go wrong in our bodies, and how we might develop better ways to put them right. There is widespread awareness of the value of stem cells in medicine, and ethical use of stem cell therapies has already improved, and indeed saved, many lives (including the present writer’s). Dr Schumacher’s research has the potential to help many more.