University research to continue using cells from adults

By Rachel Small

Biotech company Geron Corp. announced last week that the Food and Drug Administration has approved its trial assessing the usefulness of human embryonic stem cells in treating spinal injuries. The landmark decision marks the administration’s first approval of clinical trials involving embryonic stem cells.

Embryonic stem cell research has shown potential for patients suffering from a myriad of conditions, such as cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries, said Marie-Claude Hofmann, associate professor for the Department of Veterinary Biosciences.

Embryonic stem cells show promise because of their pluripotent nature, which means they have the potential to become any organ or tissue in the body, Hofmann said.

Research, however, has been limited by policies enacted under the Bush administration reducing public funding and the number of embryonic stem cells available for use.

Hofmann said these limitations have caused researchers to turn to other methods, such as adult stem cell research, which bypasses the ethical dilemmas and funding restrictions of human embryonic stem cells.

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Adult stem cells differ from embryonic stem cells in that they are found throughout the body and do not have to be taken from an embryo. They aid in repair and renewal throughout the body.

Research at the University focuses much more on adult stem cell research than embryonic stem cell research, said Jennifer Eardley, associate director for the division of biomedical sciences and manager of the committee in charge of approving all embryonic stem cell research done on campus.

“People are trying to use them on this campus to understand what are the proteins and the signaling pathways that are involved in giving cells that pluripotency, giving cells that ability to form any kind of tissue,” Eardley said. “It’s very, very basic research.”

Eardley said the committee uses National Academy of Sciences guidelines to determine whether a study is permissible. Researchers must demonstrate that there are no other alternatives for gaining the same information and that the information will be valuable.

Suzanne Berry, associate professor for the Department of Veterinary Biosciences, said that while embryonic stem cell research may be promising, adult stem cell research should not be neglected because adult stem cells are less likely to be rejected by the recipient or cause tumors.

“I don’t want it to set back the adult stem cell field, and I don’t want people to be so enamored with the possibilities of embryonic stem cell research that they don’t also continue to fund adult stem cell research,” Berry said.

Berry works with adult stem cells from blood vessels to try and treat Duchenne muscular dystrophy in mice, which could lead to advances for humans.

Eardley said many in the medical community feel research should continue along both fronts.

“Until we understand more, there’s a feeling amongst many in the community that you need to both work with adult stem cells and the embryonic stem cells until you can make your information match,” Eardley said. “You’re coming at the problem from two different directions.”

Berry said the researchers behind the new trial must be sure to address the potential for tumors to form, as well as communicate clearly with the patients about potential risks. However, she said the trial will be important because it will be closely watched, and it will produce much more reliable results than unverifiable reports from outside of the U.S.

“This trial will put a lot of questions to rest and will indicate if embryonic stem cells are going to be a potential therapy or if they’re just going to be a risk,” Berry said. “They might even address some of these highly questionable treatments in other parts of the world, too.”

Eardley said she did not think changes in funding or policy about stem cells would significantly alter research at the University, but such research could be beneficial for the medical community at large.

“I think there’s a lot of promise with the adult stem cells,” Eardley said. “It would be nice to have things easier with the embryonic stem cells to work with, but at the same point in time, it’s spurred a lot of innovation in the adult stem cell niche.”