Dr. Keefer Awarded Seed Grant for Reproductive Research

The Cat blastocyst, like the one pictured above, is one of the cells that is involved in the research process.

Image Credit: Dr. Carol Keefer

August 1, 2014

A joint review panel of the University of Maryland and the Smithsonian Institute awarded Dr. Carol Keefer a grant of $40,000 for her work in trying to save endangered species.

Her proposal entitled “Alternate Approaches to Produce Pluripotent Stem Cells for Conservation Biology Applications,” goes directly to the source by attempting to save genetic diversity by reprograming cells to act as reproductive cells. Of the award money, $22,500 will come from the Smithsonian, while the university will provide $17,500.

In endangered species, genetic diversity is vital to the species recovery. This diversity can sometimes be threatened due to circumstances such as sickness, poaching or other unforeseen deaths. When populations get down to a certain point, every bit of diversity counts. Taking gametes from a subject can be dangerous both for the animal and the collector. Dr. Keefer’s program is a way to counteract both issues.  “Our goal is to develop new stem cell technologies that can be used to help preserve genetic biodiversity of endangered species,” the associate professor explained.

In layman’s terms, this study would allow researchers to take any cell and reprogram it to be a sex cell. This was being done by using mature oocytes (eggs) through somatic cell nuclear transfer (cloning.) However, eggs are often difficult to obtain from endangered species. This could also be done by forced expression of proteins within the cells to reprogram them, causing genetic medication. Dr. Keefer feels her method is safer and more effective.  “The approaches we propose avoid the use of genetic modification, which would be contrary to the goal of conservation biology of preserving the species pedigree,” she said.  The idea for the research came as an extension of her research in improving the culture system for embryos.

Dr. Keefer remarked, “We are confident that the research we propose will lead to new technologies for preserving and propagating endangered species.” She also credited the Department of Animal and Avian Sciences with providing her with the resources to make this grant possible. “The department supplied the basic facilities, supporting personal, including business staff, and graduate assistantships that have made this research and grant writing possible,” she said.