--“Stem cell biology is one of the greatest revolutions in bio-medicine,” Ira Black, MD, told 350 listeners at yesterday’s forum at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) on stem cell research. Black, chair of the department of neuroscience and cell research at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey- Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, discussed recent breakthroughs in stem cell research. He talked about the it might bring for treatments of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, birth defects, and other degenerative diseases. Treena Livingston Arinzeh, PhD, NJIT assistant professor of biomedical engineering, also spoke. In introducing Arinzeh, Black called tissue engineering “the next level” in bio-medical research. Arinzeh described how her studies point the way to “off the shelf” therapies for broken bones and spinal cord injuries. Arinzeh recently received the 2003 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for her research on adult stem cells.
Adult bone marrow stromal cells (BMSCs) are remarkably plastic, Black said his recent research has shown. Self-renewing and readily available in every human body, BMSCs have the ability to change into a wide variety of specialized cells—including nerve cells (neurons) in the brain. Black and his team have found that BMSCs introduced into animals tend to migrate to damaged areas where they change into local cell types, aiding in repair.
This plasticity has many potential medical applications. Black’s research suggests that BMSCs can be induced to replace the dopamine cells that are destroyed in Parkinson’s Disease. “This raises the hope that adult BMSCs may be plastic enough to be used in treating Parkinson’s,” he said.
When Black and his team introduced BMSCs into laboratory rats who had had the learning and memory areas of their brains damaged, the BMSCs migrated to the damaged areas and began to replicate. This suggests that BMSCs may be useful in treating Alzheimer’s Disease, a hypothesis that Black has begun to test in animal models of the disease. Although Black and his team focus primarily on neurological issues, other research has suggested that adult BMSCs may also be able to differentiate into insulin-producing cells, a capability that may eventually aid in the treatment of diabetes.
Adult BMSCs offer a number of advantages to researchers designing new medical treatments. Because each person has a “vast reservoir” of such cells that can be easily harvested and readily grown in cultures, patients could donate BMSCs to themselves (“autologous transplantation”) without the fear of immunorejection or the need to take toxic immunosuppressive drugs. Because of their plasticity, BMSCs would not require “primary genetic manipulation,” making it very unlikely that new treatments would cause cancerous tumors, a common problem with many current therapies. Moreover, using BMSCs “obviates the ethical concerns about using embryonic tissue,” Black noted.
Black attributed much of the public furor surrounding embryonic stem cell research to misinformation, what he termed “fantasy fears.” “Abortions are not performed to get stem cells,” he explained. “Embryonic stem cells are obtained from small in vitro-fertilized cell groups called ‘blastocyts’ that would otherwise be thrown away.”
Paying tribute to stem cell research advocate Christopher Reeve who died recently, Black descried regulations promulgated by the Bush administration that deny federal funding to researchers creating new lines of embryonic stem cells. “There are only 11 useable lines right now,” he said, “hardly adequate for our purposes.” These lines contain “no genetic diversity,” he added, “and all are potentially contaminated.” Even though adult stem cell research offers promise, embryonic stem cell research must continue as well, Black stressed. “We need to know more because different stem cells may be better for different purposes.”
Although much of Black’s talk focused on medical treatments that are many years off, he stressed that “Stem cells are not about the future. They are about now.” He described how BMSCs have been used to treat osteogenesis imperfecta, a condition in which a child’s bones are so brittle that they break whenever the child moves. BMSC therapy has been so successful that some of these children can now stand and walk independently, Black said.
Black is director of the New Jersey Stem Cell Institute, the only such state-supported institute in the country. The NJSC Institute “integrates basic research with treatment via clinical trials,” Black explained. Black praised the New Jersey state legislature for supporting such research, including stem cell cloning for therapeutic use. Such cloning is designed solely to create a new source of stem cells, Black said. It will never be used to produce clones (carbon copies) of human beings, a goal that Black called “completely unacceptable.” “It should never exist.”
Black and Arinzeh’s presentation was the second in NJIT’s new Technology and Society Forum Series. The series is designed to stimulate conversation between the experts and members of the community about the social implications of cutting-edge technologies. On November 10th, internationally-known physicist Dr Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advance Studies at Princeton will explore the ramifications of genetic engineering.