Seed grants in bloom

Established in 2005, the purpose of the HSCI Seed Grant program has been to provide early-stage funding for novel research projects that address challenges from across the stem cell field. Over the past nine years, the Seed Grant program has served as an important community-building tool, helping junior researchers to establish their labs, and proving senior researchers new to stem cell science with a community of peers. Here are four projects that the Seed Grant program helped make possible and that continue to bear fruit after the initial investment:

Alzheimer's in a dish

Earlier this year, scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital announced that they successfully converted skin cells from patients with early-onset Alzheimer’s into the types of neurons that are affected by the disease. The research, which makes it possible for the first time to study this form of dementia in living human cells, was co-funded by a 2012 Seed Grant given to Tracy Young-Pearse, PhD.

Clinical trials to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s have a historically high failure rate, partially because potential drugs are first tested in non-human models. Young-Pearse and colleagues believe that their patientderived neurons could be used to predict which therapeutics will best help early-onset Alzheimer’s patients.

New approach to lung repair

Also in 2014, Boston Children’s Hospital researchers showed that it may one day be possible to treat several lung diseases by introducing proteins that direct lung stem cells to grow the specific cell types needed to repair these conditions.

2007 Seed Grant recipient Carla Kim, PhD, and her team found a natural pathway in the lung that triggers stem cells to regenerate injured tissue. By enhancing this natural pathway in a mouse model, the investigators successfully increased production of the gas exchange cells that are irreversibly damaged in diseases including pulmonary fibrosis and emphysema.

A new cancer target

Last summer, two HSCI-affiliated labs—one in Singapore and the other at Brigham and Women’s Hospital—identified a gene common to the most aggressive forms of cancer. The gene, SALL4, is normally only expressed during embryonic development, as a signal to stem cells to remain stem cells. But cancer cells re-express the gene, possibly causing tumors to form.

That research, boosted by a 2007 Seed Grant to Li Chai, PhD, has so far shown that some liver cancers and most acute myeloid leukemia tumors regress if SALL4 protein activity is inhibited. The investigators are now looking to overcome the technical challenges of drug development and demonstrate the potential of SALL4 interference to treat other cancers.

Origin of the heart's great vessels

Another 2013 discovery, made by a team of Massachusetts General Hospital scientists, revealed that the clump of cells that give rise to the embryonic heart also form the heart’s plumbing, such as the aorta and the other great vessels.

The find, co-funded by a 2008 Seed Grant to Caroline Burns, PhD, could explain characteristics of congenital diseases in humans, such as DiGeorge syndrome, and may eventually lead to new therapeutic strategies.