Internationally renowned researcher and scientist Kathy Niakan ’96 has been named the 2016 Charles Wright Academy Alumna of the Year. She is featured in the winter 2016 issue of Ties, and the full transcript of our interview with her is below.
What first sparked your interest in science—and in biology in particular?
I was inspired to pursue molecular biology and genetics following an undergraduate research experience when I identified the gene responsible for an inherited blood disorder. I was thrilled by the possibility that by understanding what is causing a disease it may lead to new approaches for treatment.
How did your education here at CWA—in science or in another subject—influence how you approach your research now?
There were several fantastic teachers at CWA who had a positive influence on me. Diane Hunt was incredibly supportive and encouraged me to believe in myself. Steve Matson was also an extremely dedicated teacher, and I continue to use the journalism skills he taught. He instilled a love of reading and had us memorise Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English, which my brother and I still recite for a laugh—we’re such nerds! Joe Puggelli also made learning fun, and I still have vivid memories of him teaching us about the history of civilization.
As we understand it, your focus of study is on the very early stages of cell development, exploring the ways in which various factors regulate embryonic stem cells as they develop from one stage to the next. What is it about this specific field of research that inspires your work?
I am fascinated by what happens to our cells at the very start of life, as embryos develop. When an egg is fertilised by a sperm, the cell divides and divides to form a cluster of about 100 cells. It is at this point, just a few days after fertilisation, that some cells start to differ from one another. This process of cells becoming specialised for a certain job is extremely important. The first specialisation process is when a subset of cells become destined to form the baby, while other cells become committed to form the placenta that supports the baby during development.
I’m really interested in understanding the factors human embryos need to develop successfully. Our work is all about what controls this first essential specialisation process in humans. How do some cells get set aside to make a baby, while others are destined to make the placenta?
We are using state-of-the-art approaches to understand the way the genetic material is expressed differently in one of the cell types compared with the others. All cells receive instructions on what to do and how to behave from our DNA—the genetic code and blueprint for a human being. We are interested in special proteins called transcription factors that are involved in the process of expressing information encoded in the DNA. The action of transcription factors means that different parts of DNA (known as genes) can be expressed in different types of cells. We study the transcription factors that send messages allowing cells to become the cells of the body or the placenta, and how this ability is switched off as the embryo grows into a baby and cells specialise into different roles.
At the very beginning of development, just after fertilisation, cells exist in a unique state where they can become any of the cell types that make up the human body—this property is known as “pluripotency.” We are very interested in what factors the pluripotent cells need to multiply in the laboratory as stem cells. We use stem cells to understand early human development and this could lead to improvements in the outcomes of in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Studying stem cells also helps us understand how embryo cells become more specialised, which provides insight into the causes of miscarriage or birth defects. As stem cells and other quick-growing cells are similar, studying these cells could also tell us lots about what regulates the growth of cancers. Ultimately, we think these pluripotent stem cells could be used to generate tissues to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s or diabetes, or to discover and test new drugs.
How does the progression of your research impact the scientific and medical communities? What do you hope comes out of the discoveries you are making?
In terms of the bigger picture, I hope that our work will lead to a greater understanding about what is needed for a human embryo to develop in a healthy way. There will hopefully be more immediate benefits for IVF and better clinical treatments for infertility, such as identifying embryos that are more likely to implant successfully and led to full-term pregnancy. In parallel, the stage of embryo development that we study has tremendous benefits for stem cell research, which will have much broader benefits in many different fields of medicine.
We are currently collaborating with a group at the University of Newcastle who are developing IVF-based treatments to prevent the transmission of mitochondrial diseases. Mitochondria generate most of a cell’s energy supply. Unhealthy mitochondria can cause a range of debilitating and fatal diseases. We hope that this will lead to treatments for these devastating diseases.
What advice do you have for young Tarriers—especially girls—who want to go into science?
To keep on going and not give up; you need to have a fighting spirit. Many times you’ll face results that are confusing and you may feel that you’ve failed, but if you’re passionate about your research then you’ll work through those challenges and keep seeking answers. In hindsight, often these seeming failures are not as big of a deal as they seem, and in some cases they even lead you to serendipitous discoveries. The continual striving for answers and passion for your work are attributes you see in many successful scientists. A great thing about science is that there are diverse ways to approach it and be creative. It’s a very refreshing and fabulous work environment—I recommend it.