Course offers undergrads a lesson in stem cells

Touching on history, uses and ethics, the class is offered for the first time this spring.

Rachel Raveling

Beginning next semester, the University of Minnesota will offer its first undergraduate course on stem cells. Until now, the University has only taught classes that focus exclusively on stem cells to graduate students.

The new class âÄî Stem Cells in Biology and Medicine âÄî is offered by the Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development and will cover the history of stem cells, how they are engineered, their research and their practical applications.

It will be hard to avoid discussing the ethics of stem cell research, including the controversy attached to using human embryonic stem cells for research, said Jeffrey Simon, a genetics, cell biology and development professor who will teach the course this spring.

Simon said the idea for the class had been bubbling for a while.

âÄúIt is an important area of biology that wasnâÄôt adequately covered here,âÄù he said.

Stem cell biology is one of the most rapidly progressing fields, he said, and many students show interest in the topic.

The 4000-level class is targeted toward upper-level students who have an understanding of biology. The class will not include a lab but will give students basic knowledge about stem cells and their applications. The course will include lectures and discussions with reading components like papers by researchers in the field.

Students in the class will learn about the three major types of stem cells:

·         Adult stem cells, which have been used for around 40 years and can be found in bone marrow.

·         Induced pluripotent stem cells, which have the potential to be differentiated into a variety of cell types.

·         Embryonic stem cells from both humans and animals, which can differentiate into every type of cell and easily self-reproduce.

Simon said one part of the class will be dedicated to the history of stem cell research, including the discovery, engineering and historical events that have shaped the ethics of embryonic stem cell research regulations.

Discussion of using human embryonic stem cells for anything is naturally going to attract moral concerns, Simon said.

But he said the cells never come from an embryo that was fertilized in a woman.

Simon explained that most human embryonic stem cells used in research were donated and created in culture dishes in a lab, similar to how in vitro fertilization centers make fertilized embryos for couples who struggle to get pregnant naturally.

The controversy will be evident in stem cell history, part of the reason that any research done with human embryonic stem cells must follow strict regulations.

The class will welcome the issues with discussions and respect, and each side will be considered with sensitivity, Simon said.

Stem cell research is a popular field of study at the University. There are currently about 50 stem cell research projects in progress at the UniversityâÄôs Stem Cell Institute, said Jonathan Slack, director of the institute.

The majority of the research is being done with IPS cells that usually originate from donated skin cells, Slack said. About six projects use human embryonic stem cells and another six or so use embryonic cells from mice.

Slack said he welcomes the new class because it will give undergraduates another opportunity to learn.

âÄúI think itâÄôs great if people are interested in it âÄî the more people who know about this stuff the better,âÄù said Dan Kaufman, associate director for the Stem Cell Institute.

Many professors have said that undergraduate students show a lot of interest in the topic of stem cells, Simon said, and often independently choose to write about them for class.

He said heâÄôs particularly excited for a portion of the class that he calls modules. The modules will look into a small number of diseases, and as a class they will learn the approaches in stem cell research that could impact the discovery of treatments for conditions like diabetes or cardiac disease.

The class will be capped at 60 students, but Simon said that could change if there is a high level of interest in the course.

Stem Cell Institute uses $43M to find treatments

The University of MinnesotaâÄôs Stem Cell Institute opened in 1999. Since then, it has received more than $43 million in grant funding for its work, the majority of which is federally funded through the National Institutes of Health. Researchers target applications of stem cell research for the treatment of many common diseases including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, neurological disorders and congenital disorders.

A few examples of ongoing stem cell research at the University:

·         Using adult stem cells from umbilical cord blood and bone marrow donations to find effective methods of treating epidermolysis bullosa âÄî a group of skin disorders that cause blistering.

·         Using donated human embryonic stem cells to create âÄúnatural killers,âÄù which can be used to fight cancer, and cells that line the blood vessels to help fight heart disease.

·         Using induced pluripotent stem cells âÄî cells that have been grown from skin cells that can be differentiated into many different types of cells âÄî to create insulin-producing cells to treat diabetes.

·         A few general topics the institute is working on include: generation and transplantation of neural and muscle stem cells, regeneration of tissues and organs and the preparation and properties of pluripotent stem cells, which were only discovered in 2006.


Source: Jonathan Slack, director of the Stem Cell Institute.