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Professor Studies Flatworms for Ways to Fight Cancer

January 8, 2010

Professor Studies Flatworms for Ways to Fight Cancer

Planaria are curious creatures. The tiny flatworms will grow a new head if it’s cut off. They’ll produce a new body if they’re sliced in half. Manipulate their genes, and they’ll develop multiple heads.

UC Merced’s
School of Natural SciencesProfessor
Néstor J. Oviedowants to know why.

Long relegated as a scientific oddity, the planarian has become among the species that could be crucial in understanding the role of stem cells. Their body’s ability to repair itself is unparalleled and its secrets could help combat cancer and degenerative diseases.

“It’s really interesting how this process happens,” Oviedo said. “It’s one of the most exciting problems in biology.”

Assisted by two lab technicians and four
undergraduatestudents, Oviedo runs one of about 10 laboratories, affiliated with some of the nation’s leading schools, who study planaria to learn how their regenerative systems work. Working in UC Merced’s open labs has allowed Oviedo to learn more about his colleagues’ work and collaborate across different disciplines.

Oviedo’s path to UC Merced began in Venezuela, where he grew up and studied to become a veterinarian. During his undergraduate work, he realized he preferred the
researchside of science. He went on to earn his Ph.D. in 2004 from the University of Utah and did his postdoctoral training at The Forsyth Institute-Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Oviedo joined UC Merced in July 2009, lured by the opportunity to research
stem cells, help build a university and improve the San Joaquin Valley.

“It’s fascinating to be in a place building from scratch,” he said. “Several years ago it was a golf course.”

Oviedo has spent the past five months establishing his lab in the Science and Engineering building and teaching a
biologyclass to 150 students.

Besides looking at the regenerative nature of planaria, Oviedo is trying to understand why, as science suggests, stem cells may cause some cancer.

Stem cells are timely regulated and constantly instructed to replace cells in our body, he explained. The process goes flawlessly most of the time. For example, a human’s intestinal lining is replaced about every five days. Occasionally, bad information is relayed, causing cells to go to the wrong place or over divide, causing a cancerous growth.

Understanding the early indicators of problems, what goes wrong and how to keep stem cells from attending bad signals could help researchers find ways to keep humans from developing cancers and other diseases.

Meanwhile, the research into planaria and salamanders could lead to ways for people to regenerate lost body parts. Salamanders can grow fully-functioning eyes, limbs and tails, he said. Up until children are seven years old, they can grow new fingertips, if severed.

“It means there is still some potential for reintegration (of body parts) in humans,” he said.

Oviedo’s research highlights the university’s goal of allowing faculty and students to collaborate and find innovative solutions to problems, such as cancer.