Belize Biochemist's Groundbreaking Stem Cell Research - 08/18/17 10:35 AM
Jules Vasquez, Reporting
I first met Aimee Flores back in 2002, when she was in Standard Six and had just topped the PSE.
Tops In PSE
"Well it feels good to put in your work and to know that I came out as first"
We next met her four years later, when she was the second best nationally in the CXC's.
Aimee Flores, Second Nationally in CXC
"It certainly feels good. I am very proud of myself."
And now all of Belize has reason to be proud of Aimee. Now a doctoral student, she has gotten a major piece of groundbreaking stem cell research published in a leading medical journal called Nature.
Aimee Flores, Doctoral Student - UCLA
"For this particular project I've been working on hair follicle stem cells, so those are the stem cells that are in your scalp basically that are responsible for growing the hair. As you know, not just you specifically, but a lot of people have baldness for many different reasons, men and women and one of the underlying causes is the inability of the stem cells to activate, to form hair. And so a lot of the drugs out there currently target more the external factors that affect the hair follicle's stem cells, so like hormonal changes that somebody might be going through, stress, genetics play a factor, that might affect the stem cells and cause them to not be able to to activate and form hair. And so our research basically was on how do we get the stem cells to activate regardless of the external cues?"
"How exciting is this, how new is this?"
"Well it's the first time that anybody has ever really described something like that so it's pretty huge. Ahm, whenever people think about stem cells, they generally think about the genetics behind it, nobody has really done work on the metabolism of the cells. And so we were one of the first groups to look at metabolism of stem cells, and in particular the metabolism of stem cells."
"Is this a cure for baldness?"
"We can't go so far as saying a cure, it's definitely something we can probe more to see if it can potentially treat baldness. It's not something that you can go, and, you know, buy lactate and put it on your head and say that it's gonna work."
Even though this was a big breakthrough, for example, primarily what I'm working on in my lab is squamous cell carcinoma, which is a form of skin cancer, so that's actually the main work that I do. This was just a sort of â€˜by the way'. So, if by the way we can make a drug that can make an impact for those who are suffering from baldness, and if we generate funding, that funding will be pumped right back into our skin cancer research."
And she plans to bring her research program here to Belize.
"Where do you see yourself in 10 years?"
"Hopefully back in Belize. I do want to come home, my family is here. I probably have a few more years that I need to wrap up over there in terms of, you know, some more experience I want to get in the pharmaceutical industry, but my long term goal is to come home. I want to have a pharmaceutical company here if I can."
"How do you hope to make that real by bringing your expertise back to Belize. And is it in a developmental effort to say, well, if we do this certain other things can happen with a younger generation?" Aimee Flores
That's exactly what it is. I feel like, you know, if we're constantly waiting for a reason to come backâ€¦I mean somebody has to come back and do something first, right? So, I'm not necessarily waiting for somebody to suddenly open the pharmaceutical world in Belize. I'd be happy to be that person to begin.
And in the meantime here's her advice to those young students who have a faraway dream:
"I feel like you can be anything that you want to be. I really don't believe in that whole concept of, you know, you come form a small country you're not gonna make ti very far in the world. Small fish big pond as you said. I feel like if they work hard enough, ahm, whether it's a scholarship that they need to get where they need to go, or even if they need to take longer routes to get there, I feel like if they're determined in what they're doing they can achieve what they want."
Aimee Flores will be finished with her doctorate at the end of the year, and will go to work full time on it starting early next year.