U stem cell researchers closer to disease cures

Tim Sturrock

The University’s Stem Cell Institute has successfully turned bone marrow stem cells into blood vessels, a finding that could help treat cancer and other diseases, researchers said in a paper published recently.

“We found that these cells seek out areas where new blood vessels are needed,” said Dr. Catherine Verfaillie, director of the University’s Stem Cell Institute. Verfaillie said the stem cells then help the surrounding area grow new tissue.

Stem cells, found in embryos, grow into the different tissues and organs that make up the human body. Researchers across the country are examining ways for stem cells to rebuild damaged cells.

Bone marrow containing stem cells is thought by some to be more limited in its ability to form different types of cells.

Verfaillie said her lab intends to compare embryonic and bone marrow stem cell research to determine which type of stem cells is most promising. The lab has hired an embryonic stem cell researcher to help.

She said the University has recently submitted four similar studies regarding brain, liver, pancreas and blood cells to medical journals. The studies must be reviewed before publication.

Adult bone marrow stem cells have been viewed by some abortion opponents as an alternative to embryo stem cells, but Verfaillie said it’s too early for such judgments.

“I think papers that will come out show that (bone marrow stem cells) are quite promising,” Verfaillie said. “I think it’s way too early to say which cells are going to work for what kind of application.”

Verfaillie said the research, which appears in Friday’s issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation, is at least five years away from human trials, and the work must still be tested for possible toxic reactions in humans.

Diane Krause, professor at Yale University Medical School, said the ability to use bone marrow stem cells to rebuild tissue is not unique in the medical community. She said what differentiates Verfaillie’s work is that the stem cells she used were grown in a laboratory.

Last November, published research by Verfaillie’s lab showed it had isolated and grown bone marrow cells in the lab for a year without signs of aging.

University researchers published a groundbreaking study in November that suggested using adult stem cells to treat disorders such as osteoporosis, arthritis and other diseases.

Linzhao Cheng, a stem cell expert at Johns Hopkins University, said so far Verfaillie’s work has been highly respected but requires independent testing before it can be fully accepted.

“For any significant discovery, it can only become significant if everybody else can reproduce the data and move it to a higher level,” he said.

Cheng said if other laboratories confirm Verfaillie’s results, the research will be important for the stem cell field.

John Pocock, spokesman for Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, said Verfaillie’s research is encouraging.

“We think that more researchers should be using adult stem cell research,” he said. “We want people to live longer. We want cures for people we love; we just want it done ethically.”

Tim Sturrock covers the Medical School and welcomes comments at [email protected]