Dr. Adetola Adesida talks with Lucas Mina on Stem Cells

Lucas Mina is a grade 11 student and Science Expo Alberta ambassador. 

Stem cells have the wondrous potential of developing into different types of cells. In many tissues and organs, stem cells can differentiate into more specialized cells, such as red blood cells or skin cells. As such, stem cells hold promise in repairing damaged tissue and represent hope for cures to a number of conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries and heart diseases.

Sadly, people know little about stem cell research.  Furthermore, there has been lots of negative publicity on the use of stem cells taken from embryos. Stem cell research, however, has since progressed toward more acceptable alternatives, through the contributions of individuals like Dr. Adetola Adesida, who devote their entire working lives to developing stem cell therapy as a potential cure for a number of ailments.

Dr. Adetola Adesida, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta’s  Division of Orthopaedic Surgery and Surgical Research, studies osteoarthritis, a joint disease affecting 1 in every 10 people in Canada. Osteoarthritis is characterized by the breakdown the articular cartilage – that is, the cartilage found on joints which assist movement. Presently, osteoarthritis lacks a cure. Dr. Adetola Adesida hopes to treat osteoarthritis through the use of stem cells and tissue engineering.

Dr. Adetola obtained an honours bachelor’s degree in biological and medicinal chemistry and a master’s degree in biological chemistry at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. He later completed his doctoral degree in pharmacy at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom and subsequently received training at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell-Matrix Research in Manchester and at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

As an ambassador for Science Expo, I was given the task of interviewing Dr. Adetola Adesida. I met him one Thursday morning in his office. Bright-eyed and enthusiastic, he gave me a tour of his laboratory, while describing his research. For the past six years, he and his team have been trying to generate cartilage.  They do this by culturing adult-derived stem cells in polymer scaffolds, to promote the formation of tissue. By studying factors that will enhance cell growth and production, they are producing meniscus.  Meniscus transplants will be key to treating osteoarthritis.

In the very near future, Dr. Adesida hopes to make transplants available to human subjects.  In the interview below, Dr. Adesida shares his story about what inspires him, the challenges he confronts, and his vision of the future of stem cell research.

Lucas Mina (LM): What has brought you to this point in your career?

Dr. Adetola Adesida (AA): I would probably say my biggest inspiration came from my brothers that went into science. I just had that passion for biology, and I knew at a very young age that I was going to be doing something along those lines. When I got into university, the passion was still very much there with biology, and I just progressed into my PhD in the UK, and then finally finding myself here in a faculty position.

LM: How do you think attending different universities helped you in terms of exposure?

AA: I would say it helped me a great deal. I think one of the nice things about university is that you have that diversity, and people approach things from different angles, and that is very encouraging. It’s more or less like an incubator for ideas. You get to meet people that have similar interests, and some people have different interests. Everybody wants to make a difference in what they’re doing, and when you see that happening in one place, it energizes you, and drives you to do something that’s going to have an impact. So, I think the universities were absolutely vital for me to be doing what I’m doing.

LM: What is the focus of your work?

AA: As you probably know, osteoarthritis is one of the biggest cause of occupational disability in the world. This is when people have pain in the joints, mostly in the knee. It can happen in any other joints, but the knee is the big one, because obviously if your knees are not working, you can’t stand, you can’t walk, you can’t do many things. We are trying to make tissues that can replace damaged joint tissues, and we can use stem cells to do that.

LM: What is your opinion on the use of embryonic stem cells?

AA: What I don’t like about embryonic [stem cells] is when it comes from fetal tissue — because we’re talking about a whole person: We don’t know what went wrong, but for some reason, the fetus didn’t survive. I think if people sourced stem cells from fetuses, it will encourage a market for fetuses, and that will promote a lot of atrocities. I think the poor will be exploited, and they will be used as production machines for that. The argument that there are some [conditions] that cannot be treated WITHOUT embryonic stem cells is very thin. There are other sources of stem cells that have a lot of potential. Recent developments regarding induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells or iPSCs), is one example. So more research is needed.

LM: What interesting processes does your team go through?

AA: As your career progresses, you find that people’s thought processes and approaches to their work are fascinating.  For example, I might have an idea about something, and I just throw it out there. Then you see people take that idea and then approach it differently to really bring it to fruition. That is one thing I love with what I do.

LM: Do you face any challenges in your work?

AA: I think the greatest challenge in academic research is funding. Funding is so vital to what we do. If you don’t have funding, then your operation pretty much shuts down. We have been very fortunate, and we’ve had some excellent funding.

LM: What is required of a research scientist that often people are unaware of?

AA: What people don’t see is that scientists work incredibly long hours. You are thinking all the time. You’re thinking about the experiments you’re going to do. Where is it going to go? What is the story? What impact is it going to make? That’s probably one thing people don’t see. Yes, scientists are smart, but they work extremely hard.

LM: Would you say your work has greatly influenced your life outside of the office?

AA: The amount of time [my work] takes has enabled me to really value time. When I spend time with my children, I know that that time is really for them – no work is allowed. Then when I’m working, I’m working. I think my work has really helped me to be much more conscious of my time.

LM: How do you integrate faith with your work in science?

AA: When I look at my faith (Christianity) and science, [is that] I find a deeper understanding of what I do. I think having faith brings clarity to what you’re doing, and also assesses the boundary line you should not cross.

LM: What do you foresee yourself doing in the next few years?

AA: I foresee a position where I will be more of a mentor to younger scientists.

LM: What is your message to the youth who plan to take up a career in scientific research?

AA: They should do something they love to do, and what they truly feel gifted in doing. They must have passion for what they want to do, and they must also have the drive. There will be times of excitement, and there will be times of challenge. More importantly, youth need to understand that there’s so much to learn in failure, and very little to learn in success. Failure is not always the end; it just means success is around the corner.

As I reflected on my time with Dr. Adetola, I was impressed by his attitude towards his work and his unwavering commitment to it. The results of research are not instant, and the scientific process takes a lot of time, with endless revisions of set-ups, repetition of procedures, re-thinking and meticulous observations. One needs to see a deeper value to the lasting contribution of the research process in order to persevere and to make discoveries.  What has stayed with me was his passion and commitment: “You must love what you’re doing as a scientist. You have to have uncommon dedication.”

The original blog post can be found here.