Madison Research Center Seeks Stem Cell Solutions

By Vanessa de BruijnMadison MagazineSpecial To Channel 3000

In an unassuming building on the University of Wisconsin?Madison campus, scientists are attempting to perfect techniques that could allow them to mold embryonic stem cells into cells that emulate the functions of the cells that our own bodies produce. Like a blank page waiting to be written on, these cells have the potential to change the way we look at the world of medicine.

Not Just Monkeying Around Operating for more than 40 years, the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center is the only primate research center in the Midwest, and one of only eight federally supported centers in the country.

Upon entering the Primate Center, you can get a close up view of a Marmoset family, one of three types of primates the center researches. According to Jordana Lenon, public relations manager for the WNPRC, areas of research include aging and metabolic disease, immunogenetics and virology and reproduction and development.

These areas may sound complicated, but they’re relevant for a large segment of the population, and involve potential treatments for obesity, diabetes, HIV and early childhood developmental disorders. Included in some types of this research is the use of non-human embryonic stem cells, or primate stem cells, a tool that allows the center to embark on research that could, with time, translate into treatments or cures for humans.

Human embryonic stem cells are taken from a fertilized egg before it has developed into a fetus. In human stem cell research, which was pioneered at UW-Madison by James Thomson in 1998, cells are often obtained from eggs that would have ordinarily been discarded at fertility clinics from in-vitro fertilization. These cells are unique and valuable because scientists have discovered that they act like blank canvasses.

With the right technology, these cells can potentially be instructed to perform the responsibilities of many different types of cells in the human body. Scientists at the WNPRC are working to learn how they can manipulate primate stem cells into performing functions analogous to those in the human body.

“The application of this research is still years away, but it is very promising,” said Joseph Kemnitz, director of the WNPRC.

Joining Fox’s Fight As a well-known celebrity figure, Michael J. Fox is using his fame and resources to lead the fight against Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a hereditary, degenerative disease that attacks brain cells that produce a chemical called dopamine. The loss of these important cells produces the recognizable symptoms in those who have the disease: tremors, slowness of movement and an impaired sense of balance.

Funded in part by a grant from the Michael J. Fox Foundation , the Preclinical Parkinson’s Disease Research Program at the WNPRC led by Kemnitz and Parkinson’s expert Marina Emborg will collaborate with multiple researchers and foundations across the country.

According to Lenon, the WNPRC is “poised to become the country’s centralized resource for Parkinson’s disease research using non-human primate models.” Most research is done using non-human embryonic stem cells, or primate stem cells. Researchers at the WNPRC have found that using these stem cells have already shown promising results in the fight towards alleviating or eliminating some of Parkinson’s effects.

One method being looked at is the creation of stem cells that would grow neurons, thereby stimulating the creation of new cells in the brain. These specially engineered stem cells could then be implanted into the brain, which would produce dopamine once again.

“The Parkinson?s disease program was fairly recently put into place,” said Kemnitz, who described the realm of Parkinson’s disease research as active and exciting. “Research has shown very clearly that transplanted cells will grow in recipients’ brains.”

Matters Of The Heart The heart may be the strongest muscle in the body, but when it suffers a heart attack, the damage is irreversible.

“Heart cells don’t replace themselves. If you have a heart attack, the heart will be forever weakened,” Kemnitz said.

Researchers at the WNPRC have taken this cause to heart — literally, and are utilizing their ability to manipulate stem cells to investigate the possibility of injecting these cells into the heart to take over where the damaged cells left off. Kemnitz refers to this idea as kind of a “patch-up job.”

Another area that could be revolutionized by the application of stem cell technology is blood donation and transfusions. Scientist Igor Slukvin of the WNPRC is focusing his research on using stem cells to create red blood cells that would act just like the red blood cells produced by the human body.

If this science were perfected, it could potentially create an unlimited supply of type-specific blood that would eliminate the need for human donors along with the possibility of infection through transfusion.

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle also supports the creation of blood products through stem cell research. Last October, Doyle announced that he is allocating state money to help fund Stem Cell Products, Inc., the company that Slukvin founded with some of his colleagues.

This science could also mean huge changes in the treatment of leukemia through bone marrow transplants. Embryonic stem cells could be engineered to emulate human bone marrow, and would make it possible to treat bone marrow cancer without having to put someone else through the painful donation procedure.

“The California Stem Cell institute believes that in 10 years they will be able to use [this science] for human therapy,” Sluvkin said.

Coalition Criticism Despite the progress being made in the WNPRC towards cures and treatments for serious human health risks, the research center has met criticism from the local animal rights group Coalition for Animals.

The group has criticized the center’s use of primates for scientific research, claiming that this type of research may not yield any results pertinent to the treatment of humans.

Kemnitz insists that the genetic similarities between primate and human DNA makes this type of research extremely useful and applicable to the treatment of human diseases.

After a heated legal battle that is likely to be followed up by a number of appeals, the Coalition was awarded possession of the building adjacent to the WNPRC that they hope to turn into an animal cruelty museum. If the research center were given possession of this property, it would have likely expanded its facilities and collaborated with the Harlow Center, UW’s second primate research facility located just down the street.

This conflict not withstanding, “We get a lot of support from the community,” Kemnitz said. He and the WNPRC are committed to their cause and will continue to ask important medical questions that might someday lead to groundbreaking answers.