Stem Cell Institute’s director will leave the U for a Belgian university

Catherine Verfaillie has been an outspoken advocate of stem cell research.

Naomi Scott

Although Dr. Catherine Verfaillie said she will miss colleagues and friends when she steps down as the director of the University’s Stem Cell Institute, there is one aspect of Minnesota life she will have no problem leaving behind.

“I won’t miss the minus-25-degree days,” she said.

An outspoken advocate of both embryonic and adult stem cell research, Verfaillie said she plans to set up a research institution at her alma mater, the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium.

Over the next two years, she will divide her time between Minnesota and Belgium. She hopes the two universities will collaborate in research, she said.

“I told them the only time they can’t have me back is in late January or early February,” Verfaillie said, referring to Minnesota’s cold winter weather.

Verfaillie, who has family in Belgium, said she is leaving for personal reasons and not because of political limitations in her field of research.

Since coming to the University of Minnesota 17 years ago, Verfaillie has put it on the map in one of the most controversial areas of science. She was named one of the nation’s top 10 innovators in science and technology by U.S. News and World Report in 2000.

Verfaillie’s most renowned research proved that adult stem cells derived from bone marrow could transform into bone, cartilage, muscle, liver, pancreas and brain cells.

Neurosurgery professor Walter Low collaborated with Verfaillie to determine the ability of the cells to morph into cells typically found in the brain. In their experiments, Low and Verfaillie induced laboratory rats to have a type of stroke that damaged their brains.

“After a stroke, these animals are unable to properly use their hind limbs and fore limbs,” Low said. “However, when we transplant (the cells) into the brain near the region of the stroke, the animals eventually regain the ability to use their limbs properly.”

Verfaillie said she is an advocate for both embryonic and adult stem cell research because researchers do not yet know which type will be most useful in treating certain diseases.

Verfaillie said that even though Belgium is 90 percent Catholic, the country has a more open policy regarding stem cell research than the United States.

More public money is allotted to such research in Belgium, she said. As long as the ethical committees of Belgium and the Catholic University of Leuven approve her plans, Verfaillie said, she can go ahead with her research.

Frank Cerra, Academic Health Center senior vice president, said Verfaillie is promoting a global partnership that will help the University remain competitive in the field of stem cell research.

“She’s built a program of world-class breadth and depth,” Cerra said. “I think the transition will go just fine.”