Highlights from Today’s UW Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM) Meeting

Nov 5th, 2007 | By | Category: Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Seattle hosts one of the two major NIH-funded human embryonic stem cell research centers in the United States. This federally funded grant–ten million dollars spread over five years–is supplemented with private donations from the community.

What’s being done with the money: A course to train young scientists, training grant to fund them and community outreach (ethics); pilot grants to draw in other scientists; three cores–one on human embryonic stem cells, one on advanced imaging technologies, and one using robots to screen drugs. Two floors of laboratories in a new building in South Lake Union will house most of the show. Eventually the hope is to form a department around this center.

How did we get the grant? By some impressive science. Almost everyone working on stem cells in Seattle gave a ten minute presentation of their work. Here are some highlights:

* Tony Blau can control stem cells after transplantation through a nifty bit of genetic engineering. While he started controlling the production of red blood cells, my friend and colleague Kelly Stevens has successfully controlled the growth of muscle cells grafted into an injured heart using Tony’ engineering.

* Beverly Torok-Storb is busily working creating (first in the world) dog embryonic stem cells. Why? Because dogs are one of the few animals with as much genetic diversity as humans. If you want to get around the immune system when transplanting human embryonic stem cells into humans, dog embryonic stem cells into dogs are probably the best place to work it out. It worked for blood stem cells a few decades ago, making Seattle the first place in the world where bone marrow transplantation worked.

* Carol Ware’s human embryonic stem cell core, currently limited by Federal restrictions, cultures fourteen of the “Bush blessed” lines. Beyond those, she also managed to maintain virtually all other available mammalian lines, including mink, mouse, cat, rhesus, fasicularis and marmoset. This is a remarkable technical feat. Dr. Ware also developed an impressive new technology improving the freezing and thawing of embryonic stem cells.

* Pam Becker is already running clinical trials using genetically modified (bone marrow derived) stem cells, a key bit of infrastructure to getting basic scientific findings to patients. The amount of paperwork–to this basic scientist at least–is terrifying. She works on treatments for both Gliomas and Fanconi Anemia.

* Provost Phyllis Wise warns that “California overpromised to the voters about cures” and that Washington should focus on basic science, understanding and building “nodes of expertise.”

* Thalia Papayannopoulous is figuring out a way of deriving blood-forming stem cells from embryonic stem cells. By first transplanting blood-forming cells into an immune-mismatched patient, we might be able to protect the cells from rejection.

* David Russell is a master at genetically modifying stem cells–useful for studies, preventing tumors from forming, and enhance transplantation. Foamy virus vectors. AAV gene targeting. HPRT locus as a model. Goal to modify the immuno-compatibility genes to make embryonic stem cell lines that will be accepted by many patient immune systems.

* Robert Hevner showed that exercise more than doubles the number of new neurons formed in the memory-regulating hippocampus (of mice). Add in the observation that living in an “enriched” environment increases the survival of the neurons and conclude: if you want a healthy brain get off your ass and do something interesting.

* Billie Swalla gave a fascinating talk about worms and other tiny animals that can or cannot regenerate themselves after injury. One must love any organism that can regrow it’s head. Choice quote: “This is a scary experiment for undergraduates. You cut the worms in half, and they just die.”

* Some shared problems repeatedly came up. The limited number of pre-August 2001 lines means those in use are aging. Chromosomal abnormalities are increasingly common.