Conference Displays Stem Cell Research From Across Nation

Research covers facets of skin and hair disorders, hearing loss, and disease treatment

November 3, 2010

“Hearing loss is highly prevalent in our population – certainly something we all begin to experience with age, but I always tell my students: be careful about turning up the volume to high on your iPod. Damage to auditory cells in humans and mammals … is irreparable.” These were the opening words of a speech given by Prof. Andrew Bass, neurobiology and behavior, at the Third Annual Stem Cell Symposium held on Oct. 30. Bass concluded by saying that stem cells are just clearly beginning to make an impact on research to improve hearing loss.

The conference’s opening remarks were given by David Anders, New York State Stem Cell Science (NYSTEM) scientific officer. Dr. Anders explained that NYSTEM was implemented in 2007 with $600 million and an 11-year commitment to advance scientific discoveries in stem cell biology. The mission of the program is “to foster a strong stem cell research community in New York State and to accelerate the growth of scientific knowledge about stem cell biology and the development of therapies and diagnostic methods under the highest ethical, scientific and medical standards for the purpose of alleviating disease and improving human health.”

The morning session of the conference began with Prof. Richard Young, biology, MIT. Young is a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, and his work examines how protein regulators control gene expression in healthy and diseased cells. Dr. Young’s lab discovered that “embryonic stem cell master transcription factors form an interconnected autoregulatory loop, and thus feedback regulates their own expression.”

Young’s research is based on the concept that defects in gene expression can cause several chronic diseases, including “diabetes, cancer, hypertension, immune deficiencies and neurological disorders. Improved understanding of this circuitry should lead to new insights into disease mechanisms and the development of new diagnostics and therapeutics.”

Dr. Angela Christiano, the director of the Center of Human Genetics at Columbia University, discussed the application of stem cell technologies to skin and hair disorders.

Christiano studies genes that cause diseases through modeling a knockout of the gene in mice to test the effect of the gene. She discussed how Induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells – cells with the potential to differentiate into multiple types of tissue – can be generated from an individual human dermal fibroblast.

The basic use of this technology has been around for about 30 years, explained Christiano – this is the same principle used to grow in vitro skin for patients with large burns. However, in her research, Christiano used this technique to grow keratinocytes – the predominant cell type in the epidermis – for patients. Her work examined genetic disorders that cause blistering of the skin by identifying their genes and finding the threshold expression at which the skin disorder would manifest. Christiano’s work has also lead to the discovery of several key genes involved in hair growth.

Following the morning session, 19 students from the University presented their work at a poster session. Samantha J. Palmaccio ’11 presented her poster, “Reconstruction of the MIR-376B-CIAP1 Pathway Targets Mammary Cancer Stem Cells,” which focused on “tumor-initiating, tumor propagating or cancer stem cells representing a subpopulation of highly tumorigenic. self-renewing cells believed to be largely responsible for tumor formation and progression in a broad variety of cancers.” The discovery of such cells is of vital importance since they are able to form carcinomas earlier and are able to reconstitute all tumor cell populations more efficiently, explained Palmaccio.

In the afternoon, Prof. Amy Wagers, stem cell and regenerative biology, Harvard University, presented on skeletal muscle stem cells in the muscle pepair and muscle disease. Her research focuses on “defining the factors and mechanisms regulating the migration, expansion and regenerative potential of blood-forming and muscle-forming stem cells.”

Prof. Alexander Nikitin, biomedical sciences, also presented his work. He is leader of the University’s stem cell research program. His work revealed that “both carcinomas and sarcomas associated with deficiency of tumor suppressor genes p53 and Rb arise from the stem cell compartment.”

Nikitin and Prof. Julien Sage, genetics, Stanford, both presented research that showed a side of stem cells applications that had not been investigated before. Stem cells have always been the center of fighting disease because of its applications to tissue regeneration. Now, these scientists have discovered that stem cells are involved in much more than creation and regeneration of healthy tissues; they are also involved in the originations of malignant ones.

Tudorita Tumbar, molecular biology and genetics, was chair of the Stem Cell Symposium Committee. Tumbar explained that the participants of the symposium were selected because they represented the leading edge of their field. Tumbar explained that it is important for the University to see what other people on campus and around the country are doing.

By Yusnier Sonora Lopez

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