Pitt researchers reflect on stem cell use

By Gwenn Barney

It comes straight from science fiction: scientists rebuilding damaged body parts, slowing the… It comes straight from science fiction: scientists rebuilding damaged body parts, slowing the aging process in animals and repairing damaged hearts with an injection.

They are actually the reality of research in Pitt’s Stem Cell Research Center, part of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. The research center does cutting-edge work with adult stem cells, which are significantly different from the controversial embryonic stem cells.

“We’re trying to find ways to improve the quality of life for patients,” said John Huard, the center’s director. “It’s a translation of medicine. We’re taking something from the lab to bring it to the bedside.”

Huard and his team of researchers are developing stem cell repairs for parts of the body ranging from the bladder to the heart. Pitt researchers stepped away from one school of thought when they decided to focus on adult stem cells.

For many years, adult stem cells were considered insufficient for regenerative medicine research because, unlike embryonic stem cells, they can’t multiply indefinitely. But through their research, scientists at the center continue to prove that not only are adult stem cells sufficient for research, but they are safer for use by patients than their embryonic counterparts.

Embryonic stem cells have greater potential than adult stem cells to be rejected by a patient’s body or to multiply uncontrollably into cancerous tumors.

“With adult stem cells, we don’t have to deal with rejection or them becoming cancer as often,” Huard said.

Mitra Lavasani, a post-doctoral associate, works on an experiment aiming to slow the aging process in mice with Progeria, a disease that produces rapid aging. Her work involves repairing muscle damage, something she said adult, muscle-derived stem cells are better equipped for than embryonic ones.

She said embryonic stem cells have not been shown to regenerate muscle very well.

The center’s research with adult stem cells has not been affected by recent legal rigmarole involving embryonic stem cells.

In August, Federal District Judge Royce Lamberth banned government funding of embryonic stem cell research, blocking Obama’s 2009 executive order expanding stem cell research.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia put a stay on the ban, temporarily allowing government funding to continue until the court can more formally analyze the case and make a permanent ruling.

Whereas embryonic stem cell researchers must worry about the possibility of lost government funding, scientists in SCRC can breathe easy: Research with adult-derived stem cells is legal and has attracted less controversy.

Burhan Gharaibeh, a research assistant professor, works on a project funded by the Department of Defense. He uses muscle-derived stem cells to repair muscle damage primarily seen in soldiers.

Gharaibeh said his project’s funding is safe because he uses adult stem cells.

“I’m one of the lucky guys,” he said. “During my time at Pitt I have not had any research altered by legislation.”