Breakthrough Opens the Door Wide for Stem-cell Researchers

New breakthrough will benefit all stem-cell researchers, CU professor says.Findings about production of  stem-cells from adult skin cells, announced at a press conference Tuesday morning based on research from the journal Science “are the biggest thing in stem-cell biology in 10 years,” says Chris Hogan, associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado medical school and associate director of the Gates Regenerative Medicine and Stem-cell Biology Program.

“This is a huge, huge deal,” Hogan said. “Everybody that does stem-cell research is going to benefit from this.”

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison were able to produce cells that act like embryonic stem cells from adult skin cells injected with addition genes. The new cells are “pluripotent,” meaning that they have the potential to become any cell in the body, a characteristic usually found only in cells in the embryo.

Hogan said:

“It’s not an advance per se in curing liver disease or juvenile diabetes or so forth, but it gives everybody the tools to practically move ahead with figuring out how to cure juvenile diabetes.”

The major clinical advantage this breakthrough offers over existing stem-cell lines is that now pluripotent stem cells can be created from the cells of the individual being treated. Existing stem-cell lines were from other individuals or from mice. A person’s immune system usually rejects foreign cells.

“Those embryonic stem cells were a specific genotype that wouldn’t necessarily be a match for a practical, clinical transplant into somebody,” Hogan said. “If you just took the human embryonic stem-cells that are currently being worked on in laboratories across the country, and let’s say you found a way to develop insulin-producing cells to put into child diabetics, you couldn’t use those cells to do that with, because they’d be rejected by the body’s immune system.

“But because this technology involves taking skin from that patient and then reprogramming the skin cells to become the equivalent of the embryonic stem-cell population, that problem will no longer exist.

“This was the 800-pound gorilla that was always on the roof,” he said.

The second issue that this resolves is the moral issue of destroying embryos.

Hogan said that CU has no overarching position on the use of embryonic stem-cells in research. That issue is left to each individual researcher. There are several laboratories in the program that use embryonic stem cells, and others that use post-natal adult stem cells.

Hogan himself works on umbilical cord stem cells to multiply the number of cells within a cord unit so they can be transplanted to adults to treat leukemia, for instance.

“When a leukemia patient gets chemotherapy or a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, it wipes out their bone marrow. Bone marrow is the place where your blood stem cells reside. One then needs to reconstitute the blood-forming system in the body following this chemotherapy. That’s why they need a stem-cell transplant or a bone marrow transplant.

“Cord bloods represent a very nice source of blood-forming stem cells,” Hogan said. “However aren’t enough stem cells in a cord blood unit to reconstitute the system of an adult. That’s a big problem.

“What I’m working on doing is expanding the number in the laboratory of stem cells in a cord blood unit so that transplant is possible to adults.”

The Gates Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Biology Program was established in 2006 at the School of Medicine at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center with a $6 million gift from the Charles C. and June S. Gates Family Fund.