As reported by the Waterbury Republican American, November 29, 2006.
Stem Cell Pioneers: UConn Scientists See Limitless Embryonic Potential
By Ben Conery
FARMINGTON -- If researchers here are right, doctors someday will be able to rebuild the faces of soldiers disfigured by explosives, repair the arthritic joints of the elderly and even cure babies of potentially fatal brittle-bone disease before they're born. They may even be able to regrow arms and legs lost in accidents.
A team of scientists at the University of Connecticut believes these seemingly impossible medical procedures could become common with the help of embryonic stem cells.
"I believe the next major innovation in medicine is cell therapy," said Dr. David Rowe, a genetics and biology professor who is leading the team. "There is really no end to the possibilities."
The team of scientists recently received a $3.8 million grant as part of the state's pledge to put $100 million into stem cell research in the next decade. Researchers are investigating whether human embryonic stem cells can be used to regenerate muscle, bone, cartilage and skin.
"There are diseases to all of those tissues that lend themselves to be treated by putting healing cells back again," Rowe said.
It's the first time researchers at UConn have studied human embryonic stem cells. Scientists believe human embryonic stem cells hold great promise for medical use because they have the potential to become any kind of tissue or cell found in the human body. Opponents argue that extracting stem cells from the embryos amounts to murder.
In 2001, President Bush put a moratorium on funding stem-cell research, leaving only about 60 stem cell lines. Many of those lines are contaminated and unusable.
Connecticut is one of only a few states to decide to use public money to fund stem cell research. While not doling out a tremendous amount of money, Connecticut's stance helped lure one of the country's most renowned stem cell researchers to UConn.
Ren-He Xu came to UConn earlier this year to head the university's new human embryonic stem cell core laboratory. Xu previously worked at the WiCell Research Institute lab at the University of Wisconsin, where he helped develop a method to keep stem cells alive without help from cells from mice. It was considered a major breakthrough in stem-cell research.
Xu said he started his research about seven years ago after doing an Internet search for "scientific hot topic," which yielded information about stem-cell research. He said he chose UConn over other offers because of the university's enthusiasm and the state's commitment to fund the research.
Amid a maze of corridors in the hulking UConn Health Center is Xu's office, where stem cells are kept at minus 200 degrees Celsius in cryogenic freezers that look like shop vacuums and refrigerators. Down the hall, in a room no bigger that a broom closet, stem cells are fed with a mixture designed by Xu, and kept at a temperature of 98 degrees Fahrenheit, the same as the human body.
The only stem cells at UConn so far are either from one of the federally funded lines or from Harvard. Two internal university boards must assess the ethics of the facility and program before the university can collect its own stem cells. Donors who no longer need their embryos can choose to donate them.
"People have already started to contact us to donate embryos," Xu said.
Before work on those stem cells begins, Xu and lab manager Leann Crandall, who came with Xu from Wisconsin, will teach researchers techniques to grow stem cells, and keep them from developing into other types of cells.
The team has a long road ahead, and clinical trials are years, if not decades, away. While waiting for the funding to come through and the ethical checks to be done, the team expects to begin work in earnest during the spring.
Rowe said within three years his goal is to make sure they can identify the cells they inject in the mice they are using for research, find a similar way to do it in people, and find effective and efficient methods to turn stem cells into specific tissues.
"No throwing Hail Mary touchdowns, just little, tiny incremental steps," Rowe said.
But the prospects for the future loom large. Robert Kosher, a team member who studies limb development in chicken and mice embryos, said 90 percent of all people over 40 suffer from cartilage degeneration. He said stem cells could be used to repair worn joints.
"This is what science is about: We don't know," he said. "I'm pretty confident we can do it."