U, Belgium form stem cell partnership

Jerret Raffety

The University’s stem cell research became an international affair Thursday at the McGuire Translational Research Facility.

Leaders from the University and the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium signed a ceremonial agreement to develop joint and collaborating stem cell institutes.

The agreement will allow for research and academic collaboration between the two universities, including exchange of faculty members and students, joint research projects and conferences.

The two universities will collaborate on any and potentially all stem cell research the University of Minnesota’s Stem Cell Institute is involved in, including studies that could affect health hazards such as Parkinson’s disease, liver disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

Frank Cerra, senior vice president at the Academic Health Center, said international collaboration is essential for stem cell research in a speech at the agreement signing.

“Today is a really historic day, when we inaugurate through the symbol of signing, an affiliation agreement between two major universities with a very strong interest in health sciences,” Cerra said.

“If you don’t think you can be number one, you won’t – one of the ways we need to get underway to do that is international partnerships between universities of similar or greater stature,” he said.

Dr. Catherine Verfaillie, director of the University’s Stem Cell Institute, said the student and faculty exchange part of the collaboration is still in the planning stages.

She said an important part of the collaboration is to familiarize faculty members and students at both universities with one another.

“One of the things you want to do very quickly is to bring scientists there and some Belgians here to get familiar,” Verfaillie said.

Currently, the collaboration will mainly be in stem cell research, but there have been talks of collaborating on related research such as immunology and medical imaging, she said. Medical imaging is useful to stem cell research because it allows researchers to track the progress of stem cells, Verfaillie said.

“If you put stem cells in, you want to figure where they go and whether they become what we want them to become without having to biopsy the whole time,” she said.

The collaboration could include coursework for students from both universities and mentor programs for graduate students in the future, Verfaillie said.

Dr. Marc Boogaerts, vice dean of clinical affairs at the University of Leuven, said stem cell research is critical to the future of medical treatments.

“I think stem cells will change the whole field of medicine because we’re moving to regenerative medicine instead of transplanting new organs – we will use tissues and cells made by the stem cells,” Boogaerts said.

He said collaboration will lead to a critical mass of scientists put together. Stem cell research is too broad for one university to research all areas involved, Boogaerts said.

“Exchange of information is of the utmost importance in present day medicine Ö By talking to people you will gain time, without a doubt,” Boogaerts said. “(The) universities will bundle their efforts – what we will do in Leuven they don’t necessarily have to repeat in Minneapolis because they will get our results immediately and vice versa.”

He also said the collaboration will allow researchers to form interpersonal networks for more research.

“We want an exchange of students and young people going both ways over the ocean, talking to each other and forming the networks for the future,” Boogaerts said. “That’s what we need.”