As reported by The Hartford Courant, July 23, 2010.

Stem Cell Scientist Targets Osteoarthritis

Research Takes Her to the Business Side of Biology

By Arielle Levin Becker

FARMINGTON Caroline Dealy trained as a developmental biologist. For more than 20 years, she studied how embryos develop. Now the UConn Health Center professor is working on a way to create cartilage cells, with a start-up company formed to help turn the research into a potential therapy and an eye toward one day helping millions of people with osteoarthritis.

Dealy's introduction to the world of patent applications, start-up companies and the business side of biology began with a grant from the state, part of a 10-year, $100 million commitment to funding stem cell research. Her work is the first of UConn's state-funded stem cell projects to be submitted for a patent.

Dealy credits two groups the University of Connecticut Research & Development Corporation, which creates start-up companies based on the work of UConn faculty, and the university's Center for Science and Technology Commercialization with nudging her in a new direction.

Any potential human application is many years away. But if it turns out the way Dealy hopes, her work could lead to clinical trials and, someday, a way to replace cartilage damaged by osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis.

"I never really thought this would be something I would be doing," Dealy said.

Osteoarthritis affects an estimated 27 million Americans. It occurs when cartilage which provides a cushion at the ends of bones wears down, leading to soreness and stiffness in a person's joints.

While some tissues in the body, like skin, can regenerate and repair itself, cartilage cannot.

There are surgical treatments for osteoarthritis, but they have limits. One involves punching holes in damaged cartilage, allowing tissue to form inside, but it's not cartilage.

In another method, adult cartilage cells are transplanted into a person's damaged cartilage. But that can risk problems with the donor cells integrating with the person's own cartilage.

A third method works by removing a person's own cartilage, harvesting it in a controlled environment, then reimplanting it. But that method, too, has limits. It can be costly and can lead to damage where the cells are removed. And it takes time to get a person's cartilage cells to proliferate enough to reimplant.

That's where stem cells come in.

Stem cells have the potential to replicate and develop into any other type of cell including the cells that compose cartilage, called chondrocytes.

Dealy's work is aimed at reliably turning stem cells into chondrocytes. Doing so could lower the cost of replacing cartilage, Dealy said, and would allow a person to get new cartilage without having to have any removed from elsewhere in the body.

To develop the cartilage cells, Dealy and her colleague Robert Kosher, a former UConn Health Center professor, used information scientists already knew about the signals and conditions required for limbs to develop in embryos.

During embryonic development, the cells in the center of a developing limb are packed together tightly. They send signals to each other, which lead them to differentiate into their ultimate functions.

Dealy's method mimics those conditions, isolating cells, keeping them in a high density, and applying growth factors that coax them into differentiating.

The initial results came quickly. Tests showed that the cells were starting to behave like cartilage cells. Through a microscope, they looked like chondrocytes.

Dealy's team tweaked the process, trying changes like adding the growth factors at different times, to maximize the number of stem cells that would become chondrocytes.

They knew they were on the right track. But at that point, their work existed in a dish, not in a creature that could use the cells.

The chance to test that came from another source, the university's Center For Science and Technology Commercialization, or CSTC.

The people of CSTC have experience in both academia and industry, and keep an eye on the work UConn researchers do. If the research progresses far enough, they evaluate its commercial potential and consider whether it's worth applying for a patent and trying to market the technology, said Michael Newborg, the center's executive director.

About a quarter of the inventions the commercialization center works with come from the life sciences. Many of the others come from materials science, such as conductive polymers that can be used in window treatments, packaging, windshields or goggles.

In many cases, inventions get licensed to existing companies. In some, like Dealy's case, the invention can give rise to its own company. Through the University of Connecticut Research & Development Corporation, Dealy and Kosher's work became the basis of the company Chondrogenics Inc.

Having a company offers some big advantages: Chondrogenics is eligible to apply for small-business grants from the federal government, and can accept outside investment, which provides money for studies.

CSTC suggested applying for a patent on the method used to direct the stem cell differentiation.

And CSTC provided $75,000 to continue the research. Since April, Dealy's team has been working on mice with cartilage damage that mimics osteoarthritis.

The idea is to determine whether the stem cell-derived cartilage cells can repair the damage, and, if so, how to best deliver the cells to the mice's joints. If that works, the research will move on to a larger animal, and, ultimately, she hopes, to humans.

Dealy cautions that any potential human application is many years off.

"It's a long way away," she said. "I'm excited, but there's a long way to go."