Research highlights in five-minute bites

Nine HSCI scientists delivered fiveminute elevator-pitch-like descriptions of their research at the latest HSCI-sponsored public forum, “Stem Cell Stories: Revolutionary Results from Boston-Area Researchers.” The event, part of the International Society for Stem Cell Research’s annual meeting, drew more than 100 people to the Omni Parker House Hotel on a rainy Tuesday evening.

Aging - Amy Wagers, PhD, presented the tantalizing possibility that some aspects of aging may be reversible. The bloodstream carries molecules, including one protein that has already been identified, that return some parts of the body to a younger state, she said, reporting on work from her lab. Old mice, when connected to the bloodstream of young mice, saw improved repair and health in multiple organs.

ALS - Kevin Eggan, PhD, told the audience that our understanding of ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease) is improving. New stem cell techniques allow scientists to generate motor neurons from patients with ALS, making it easy to compare diseased cells with healthy cells. The Eggan laboratory is also using the patient-derived ALS cells for drug discovery, testing thousands of small molecules to see whether any can successfully reverse the disease state. Several potential drugs have already been identified.

Bioengineering - Jeffrey Karp, PhD, reported that it is possible to tell cells where to go and what to do. If used in therapy, preprogrammed stem cells could lead to much more targeted and effective treatment for a host of diseases.

Boosting the blood supply - Trista North, PhD, described how to make more of a patient’s own blood by modifying molecules within the bloodstream. Eventually, patients may no longer have to rely on a donor match for blood transplants or transfusions, making blood diseases much less threatening.

Corneal surgery - Ula Jurkunas, MD, said that corneal surgery may be much more successful when using stem cells taken from one’s own body. A patient’s cells can be taken easily from his or her mouth or healthy eye, then grown and transplanted into the diseased cornea with no risk of rejection.

Diabetes - Rohit Kulkarni, MD, PhD, explained that some 26 million people in the United States have diabetes, but the cells affected by the disease have been difficult to access. Scientists can now grow diseased cells at different stages of development to test drugs with the long-term goal of finding patient-specific treatments for diabetes.

Organ failure - Biju Parekkadan, PhD, reported the discovery that connective tissue stem cells possess molecules that help reduce inflammation, prevent cell death, and encourage regrowth. Using a bioreactor to deliver these cells into a patient’s bloodstream, it might be possible to reverse the course of organ failure.

Parkinson’s disease - Ole Isacson, MD, noted that more than one genetic mutation leads to Parkinson’s disease Scientists are comparing mutated nerve cells from different genetic groups to see if there are any similarities. These studies could help reduce the extent of neuron degeneration in patients and replace damaged cells.

Retinal disease - Michael Young, PhD, said stem cells are able to restore vision in patients with retinal disease. By growing retinal stem cells in the right laboratory conditions, it is now possible to produce enough cells for treatment.