Treena Arinzeh, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) who is one of the nation’s leading stem cell researchers, has received two grants that will help her bring the promise of stem cell research a step closer to reality.
Arinzeh received a $700,000 grant from the New Jersey Commission on Spinal Cord Research, a state agency that funds spinal cord research. She will use the grant to build a laboratory to test if stem cells taken from adult bone marrow can be made to turn into neurons. If her research shows that the cells can turn into neurons -- the nerve cells in the body that control brain and spinal cord function -- patients with spinal cord injuries could be healed with injections of stem cells.
“When you injure your spinal cord,” Arinzeh said, “you damage your nerve tissue and the neurons. So I’d like to regenerate that nerve tissue by coaxing stem cells to turn into neurons. My hope is that in five years, say, a person with spinal cord impairment could visit a doctor and be injected with a supply of stem cells. After such treatment, the patient’s spinal cord would begin to heal.”
Working with Michael Jaffe, PhD, professor of biomedical engineering and chemistry at NJIT, Arinzeh will make what are known as nano-scaffolds. Scaffolds are biomaterials that stem cells attach to and, with a bit of luck, grow into the cellular building material of tissue. Under a microscope, the nano-scaffolds look like infinitesimally small (400-500 nanometers in diameter) fiber meshes, said Arinzeh.
“We are eager to see,” said Arinzeh, “if the innovative technique of using nano-scaffolds can be used to repair injured spinal cords.”
Arinzeh’s second $300,000 grant, from the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology, will allow her to apply her stem cell techniques to help patients who have cartilage damage. She and Jaffe will spur cartilage regeneration by combing stem cells with bio-degradable scaffolds that mimic fibers found in human cartilage tissue. They will test different scaffolds and determine which biomaterial is the best catalyst for stem cell differentiation. Again, their hope is that stem cells can soon be used to treat patients with damaged cartilage.
Arinzeh and Jaffe are collaborating on this project with Louis Rizio, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and sports doctor at Mountainside Hospital, Montclair/Glen Ridge. Rizio, who specializes in cartilage repair and arthroscopic surgery, will design and interpret the animal models used to test the stem cell repair of cartilage. Rizio will also teach Arinzeh, and some of her students, how to insert stem cells in to patients’ knees during surgery.
Arinzeh’s drive to advance the science of stem cell research has gained her national recognition. Two years ago, she earned the highest honor given to a young researcher by President Bush: The Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.
Her research has also led to two major stem-cell discoveries: One showing that stem cells, when mixed with scaffolds, can help regenerate bone growth; and another proving that stem cells taken from one person can be successfully implanted into another. A list of conditions for which stem-cell treatment holds promise grows almost daily: It now includes Parkinson’s, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer and traumatic brain injury.
“Treena’s research is exciting because she has had success in crafting the right environment for stem cells to grow into other cells,” said William Hunter, chairman of the biomedical-engineering department at NJIT. “She is working in a brand-new world of medical therapy.”
Her studies could lead to medical breakthroughs that would help a host of patients. Stem cell implantation could help cancer patients who've had large tumors removed from bone, Arinzeh says. In many such surgeries, patients lose their limbs. But if her method of implanting stem cells is shown to induce bone repair, amputation may not be necessary. Stem cells could also help patients suffering from osteoporosis, whose fractured bones could be regenerated by the cells.
Arinzeh has pushed the basic science of stem cells forward and, with her latest two grants, she is poised to take it yet another step.
“Treena has all the earmarks of a technical superstar,” says Jaffe, her partner on the spinal cord research. “She’s at the leading edge of modern biology and if anyone can take stem cell research forward, she can.”