Sunday, October 07, 2007

Unlocking the Promise of Stem Cells

I'd like you to reflect back on what you learned about the last century of biology and the significance of the gene. What biologists are now beginning to realize, and what stem cells represent, is that the unit of life is not the gene but the cell. I would go so far as to predict this will be the century of cells and their self-renewal.

Only embryonic stem cells can make all parts of the body. So if you want to work on replenishing tissues, it's to the stem cells that you would go. In the case of the pancreas, the tissue I'm most interested in, there are no adult stem cells, so the only way we can replenish parts of the pancreas is through embryonic stem cells. We isolate the embryonic stem cells from an early stage of post-fertilization development, by dissecting them out from that material. In fact, a few of us are publishing a paper announcing seventeen new human embryonic stem cell lines, which more than doubles the world's available supply of these cells.

What do these cells do? What is their potential? How can we use genes and chemicals to instruct embryonic stem cells to become different parts of the body, such as pancreatic islets, the cells of the pancreas that secrete insulin? It's like teaching cells from the time they're in kindergarten through becoming a doctor or a lawyer. Meanwhile, these stem cells do differentiate or specialize without any instruction from us. For example, in one experiment they differentiated into cardiac cells and formed part of a human heart.

How to give embryonic stem cells this instruction is the biological challenge. We feel confident that we're now in a position to make significant progress in these areas. The aim is a singular goal of trying to move basic science into the clinic as we target different diseases. In addition, a special feature of this work is that it has many dimensions, allowing us to call on the richness of the University–from the Business School for help with new pharmaceutical industry models to the Divinity School, which will, of course, have something to say on this subject. With this generous gift, we will create an exciting community where we will share our ideas and plan, not only how we will do experiments, but also how we recruit new faculty, provide education and training, establish the core technology, actively engage experts in this multidimensional endeavor, and achieve our ultimate goal of getting into the clinic.



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