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Stem cells get specific
November 2011
by Amy Swinderman  |  Email the author


NEW YORK—Having spent the better part of the last decade blazing trails in the stem cell research arena, a Manhattan-based consortium of scientists has made an important advance in the development of patient-specific stem cells, a breakthrough hailed as one that will significantly impact the way such research is conducted in many diseases areas with unmet therapeutic needs.  
"This is an exciting time," says Stephen Chang, vice president of research and development at the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF). "We have made the first step in making true patient-specific stem cells, as well as understanding how to make better induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells."
That step is illustrated in a study published Oct. 5 in Nature, in which the NYSCF scientists describe how they derived human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) from individual patients by adding the nuclei of adult skin cells from patients with type 1 diabetes to unfertilized donor oocytes.
"For the first time, we have demonstrated that human oocytes have the ability to reprogram a somatic cell to a pluripotent state," Chang explains.  
The finding is an important step toward generating stem cells for disease modeling and drug discovery, and although further research must be done, the NYSCF team expects the achievement to lead to the ability to produce patient-specific hESCs that can be used therapeutically to treat diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other debilitating diseases.
The study was funded solely with private funding and adhered to ethical guidelines adopted by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the International Society for Stem Cell Research, as well as protocols reviewed and approved by the institutional review board and stem cell committees of Columbia University.  
Launched in 2006, the NYSCF was founded by leading researchers "who felt that stem cell research was not being optimized or advocated for." At the time, federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research (hESC) was restricted by President George W. Bush's executive order, and the ensuing "frustration" in the research community "led to a feeling that the possibilities of stem cell research was not being explored," says Chang.
"This led to a strategic plan to train the next generation of young researchers—investigators, post-doc students and assistant professors," he says.  
To date, the NYSCF Fellowship Program has created a community of more than 23 of the brightest researchers in the field, whose projects range from growing bone tissue to developing ways to produce neurons for therapeutic treatment of Parkinson's disease. In addition to an annual stipend, each NYSCF fellow has access to NYSCF's laboratory and presents at the organization's annual conference.  
In addition, the NYSCF's laboratory gives scientists from across the country an opportunity to develop embryonic stem cells, induced pluriportent stem cells (iPS) and cells by somatic cell nuclear transfer. The lab's collaborators work on research on diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, ALS, schizophrenia, cardiac disease, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, SMA, cancer, retinopathies and spinal cord injury.  
"The types of cell lines don't matter to us—we're agnostic to this," Chang notes. "We work with all of the lines and have no restrictions. We believe that research in this field is so early that research should be completely open until we know for certain that a particular type of stem cell is going to be the gold standard."  

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