Rice University
Rice Magazine| The Magazine of Rice University | No. 3 | 2009

Sometimes the Research Becomes Personal

When Christy Franco learned she’d be doing pioneering research on using stem cells to help stroke victims recover neurological function, it was the science that drove her enthusiasm. But things turned personal when her father suffered a debilitating stroke soon after the bioengineering doctoral student began her work at the Rice Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering.

“For several days my father lost the ability to communicate,” she said. “He couldn’t speak or even write. You could see his frustration. He wanted to communicate, but he couldn’t.”

Franco and her family were relieved when her father recovered, but Franco knows that not all stroke victims are so fortunate. Nor are sufferers of such brain disorders as Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, and that knowledge now spurs her enthusiasm.

Research by graduate student Christy Franco focuses on using stem cells to help stroke victims recover neurological function.Specialized neural stem cells help make up the body’s central nervous system during human development. They also can transform themselves into any type of brain cell and can be used to replace cells lost to disease or injury.

“Since we know the brain has very limited capacity for self-renewal and repair after an injury,” Franco said, “the idea is to find an effective niche to allow neural stem cells to grow and differentiate in the lab.”

As part of the process, the Dallas native collaborated with colleagues at Baylor College of Medicine to gather stem cells for microscopic encapsulation into tiny polymer beads through a unique emulsion technique. The gelatin-like polymer substance is specially designed to help regenerate both brain tissue and blood supply. It is hoped that microencapsulated cells from the niche can be placed into the damaged brains of stroke patients to provide a source of neural and vascular cells that may develop and differentiate. The process could lead to repairing injured tissue and restoring function in stroke victims or people with other brain diseases.

This summer, Franco flew to the Centre for the Cellular Basis of Behaviour at King’s College London to share the microencapsulation technique. It was used there for the first time in trials to inject cells into the brains of stroke-damaged rats.

“To date, one of the greatest challenges in reconstructing brain tissue in stroke victims has been to provide structural support to neural stem cells in a cavity,” said Michel Modo, the Wolfson Lecturer in Stem Cell Imaging at King’s College London. “What the research from the Rice team has allowed us to do now is to inject these cells into this hole with a support structure that potentially could reconstruct the lost tissue.”

Franco’s research at Rice is supervised by Jennifer West, the Isabel C. Cameron Professor and chair of the bioengineering department. The work is being funded by a three-year, $2.9 million inaugural Quantum Grant from the National Institutes of Health. Rice and Baylor researchers are the recipients and head up an international collaborative effort to push the research.

Franco is happy to be contributing to the research and plans to continue working in the field after she earns her doctorate. “I really believe in this work,” she said. “And my dad says he’s waiting for me to come up with a cure for people who’ve suffered strokes.”