U researchers making strides in stem cell technology

Working with St. Paul’s BioE Inc., researchers successfully grew lung cells.

Mike Enright

Although federally-funded embryonic stem cell research remains mostly off-limits, University scientists are making advances studying other types of stem cells.

In a collaborative effort with a St. Paul-based biotech company, University researchers, led by laboratory medicine and pathology professor Dr. David McKenna, have successfully transformed stem cells found in umbilical cord blood into a kind of cell found in the lungs. Their findings were published in the Nov. 7 issue of the journal “Cytotherapy.”

McKenna said the newly discovered technology has a lot of potential to help cure diseases, but for now is most likely limited to research purposes.

As a research tool, scientists could use the cells to test as of yet unknown effects of smoking, pollution or even medications on the respiratory system, he said.

“A simple (example) would be asthma drugs, for instance,” McKenna said. Other avenues might be to create inhaled versions of existing medicines, or study lung development, he said.

Ultimately, he said, researchers hope stem cells might be used treat diseases such as emphysema or cystic fibrosis, but that is probably a few years away.

The cells that researchers created, called type II alveolar cells, prevent air sacs in the lungs from collapsing, helping people breathe, McKenna said.

A group of British scientists recently discovered similar findings testing embryonic stem cells, but this is the first time anyone has successfully converted umbilical cord blood stem cells, he said.

Cord blood cells are extremely versatile and lack the controversy associated with embryonic stem cells, said Sarah Haecker, vice president of corporate development at BioE Inc., the company that provided the cells and sponsored the research.

“They are not an embryonic stem cell, but have characteristics like an embryonic stem cell, and they are not an adult stem cell because they are much younger,” she said. “So they have the best of both worlds.”

In addition to funding the research project, BioE Inc. developed the technology that successfully isolates the stem cells from the umbilical cord blood, Haecker said.

McKenna said researchers created lung cells by combining the stem cells with a substance. After being submerged for eight days, the cells had morphed.

The compound used is not actually meant to change cells from one kind to another, McKenna said, but until now was used only to preserve already formed lung cells.

NIH Grant will create research network

In other stem cell news, the University recently received a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to create the Minnesota Cardiovascular Cell Therapy Clinical Research Network. Four other institutions around the country were given similar grants.

The network will work to combine the research efforts of six local institutions.

The NIH funding will create a coordinated national initiative to fund stem cell research, said Doris Taylor, a professor of physiology and medicine and director of the Center for Cardiovascular Repair – one of the six institutions.

“The main focus of the NIH funding is to develop and participate in clinical trials in (human) patients who have had heart attacks, heart failure, or heart myopathy,” she said.

University researchers, for instance, have been studying adult stem cells found in blood, allowing them to determine how developed a patient’s case of heart disease is, Taylor said. Analyzing the cells, she said, also tells researchers how the disease will progress.