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Embryonic Stem Cell Research Forges Ahead

With funding from two private foundations, two labs are set to open in close proximity to CUMC that will allow faculty from Columbia and other universities to carry out research using human embryonic stem cell lines that are now off-limits to federally funded labs.
      The Project A.L.S./Jenifer Estess Laboratory for Stem Cell Research will focus exclusively on the study of stem cells to treat ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and related motor neuron diseases.
      The New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) lab will enable scientists to conduct research on a wide range of diseases – from diabetes to Parkinson’s – for which stem cell research shows the most promise.
      The foundations and Columbia researchers are also supporting efforts at Harvard to develop disease-specific lines of embryonic stem cells through therapeutic cloning, where embryos are created by transferring the nuclei from adult skin cells into donated eggs stripped of their own genetic material. This technique has yet to succeed with human cells. Columbia patients with diabetes, ALS and other motor neuron diseases will provide the skin cells for these experiments.
      If the attempts are successful, stem cells derived from these embryos will be genetically identical to patients, literally moving a patient’s disease into a petri dish. Columbia researchers can then use these cells to study the cause of disease, evaluate potential treatments, and possibly generate cells for transplantation.
      Founded in 2005 to promote human embryonic stem cell research, NYSCF is playing a crucial role, says Robin Goland, M.D., associate professor of medicine and co-director of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center. “Without NYSCF funding and the creation of this lab, our work in this area would have been impossible,” she says. The work is also being supported by the Berrie Center’s Program in Cellular Therapies of Diabetes.
      Project A.L.S. has had a long-standing relationship with neuroscientists at Columbia. It funded work by Tom Jessell, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics, who is also research advisor to Project A.L.S., and Hynek Wichterle, Ph.D., assistant professor of pathology, which showed that mouse embryonic stem cells can be directed to differentiate into functional motor neurons, the nerve cells destroyed in ALS.
      “Project A.L.S. has paved the way for a dramatic acceleration in the pace at which advances in basic motor neuron biology can be translated into more effective therapies to treat ALS and related diseases,” Dr. Jessell says.