Fellow Focus: Alice E. Chen

October 15, 2010
JCC Fellow, 2005–2008

­As a post-doc studying stem cell biology at Harvard University, Alice Chen found that she’d come full circle to the very questions that inspired her interest in science as a child. “The reason I went into science and developmental biology was seeing, as a kid, pictures of human embryos developing from fertilization through birth,” says Chen. “I was so enamored of it that I started to really get into science.”

Chen earned her PhD in developmental biology at Johns Hopkins University, where she used mouse models to try to understand what happens at the critical juncture when a cell chooses to become one cell type versus another. This work naturally led Chen to pursue similar questions during her post-doc studying embryonic stem cells, the undifferentiated cells that can become one of more than 200 cell types in the body. “The ultimate question to me in developmental biology was the issue of embryonic stem cells and how they make these decisions,” says Chen.

A JCC fellow from 2005-2008, Chen tackled some of the most difficult and perplexing problems in stem cell research. One of her projects involved working towards generating human patient-specific stem cells by transferring the genetic material from a donor skin cell (patient) into a host egg that has had its own genome removed. This process, known as reprogramming by somatic cell nuclear transfer, would enable production of embryonic stem cells that possess the identity of the patient. Scientists hope that patient-specific stem cells will one day lead to the development of tissues tailored to a given individual to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s and diabetes. Although the technique has been successful in animal models, the mechanics of it have not yet been unraveled in humans, says Chen.

Another of Chen’s projects involved differentiating embryonic stem cells into pancreatic cells for the study and treatment of diabetes. By transplanting some of these differentiated cells into mouse embryos, Chen found that although these newly derived cells possessed many of the cardinal signs of being the correct cells, they were not fully mature in identity or function. “Much remains to be learned about guiding a cell on decisions of fate,” says Chen. Chen also derived and published some 45 human embryonic stem cell lines, making a major contribution to the bank of stem cell lines that Harvard provides to researchers around the world.

Chen, who is now a senior scientist at Stemgent, a stem cell biotechnology company based in San Diego, California, credits the JCC fund for allowing her to pursue these questions at the heart of biology. “I will always be grateful for the Coffin-Childs family for enabling me to really explore what I’ve been wanting to explore since the inception of my interest in science,” says Chen.