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Stem Cell Research Stem Cell Research

UR seeks stem cell breakthrough

12 years, 11 months ago

2008  0
Posted on Nov 27, 2006, 6 a.m. By Bill Freeman

Quietly but steadily, under the watchful eye of some of the nation's top scientists, hundreds of technicians and researchers isolate cells and scrutinize data in 18 immense laboratories at the University of Rochester Medical Center. They're teasing out the secrets of stem cells, the building blocks of the body, in the hope of finding cures for diseases such as Parkinson's, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

Quietly but steadily, under the watchful eye of some of the nation's top scientists, hundreds of technicians and researchers isolate cells and scrutinize data in 18 immense laboratories at the University of Rochester Medical Center. They're teasing out the secrets of stem cells, the building blocks of the body, in the hope of finding cures for diseases such as Parkinson's, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

Some of the work has sparked controversy because it uses days-old human embryos, which some researchers believe can develop into many tissues of the body and in larger quantities than possible with stem cells taken from adult tissue. In turn, discoveries using those cells may lead to many more treatments, for conditions as wide-ranging as spinal cord injuries and blood cancers.

But the issue is not as simple as many political pundits, and some scientists, have led the public to believe. Using stem-cell science to treat people may be close to realization for some conditions but many years away for others. Federal funding for new embryonic work is banned, but private funding is flowing. Using embryos could be vital for some discoveries but completely unnecessary for others.

One UR scientist, neurologist Dr. Steven A. Goldman, recently had a breakthrough, then a setback, in Parkinson's treatment. Yet he might be close to finding a treatment for some neurodegenerative diseases.

Details of the daily work of researchers such as Goldman are largely unknown to the public, if only because the science is so complex and arcane. But shining a spotlight on his lab may improve understanding of the research that could one day change medicine.

"To think, you can actually start to do the things you dream about," Goldman said.

UR expands reach

Directly across from Goldman's desk in the Arthur Kornberg research building next to Strong Memorial Hospital is a dry eraser board filled with scribbling. The notations would probably mean nothing to 99 percent of the population. But for Goldman, it's like reading the back of a cereal box. "It's pretty easy actually," he said.

Goldman is sketching out what is called a progenitor cell, a cell that leads to the formation of the brain's structures. But one has to determine how and why the cell changes to learn how to manipulate it for other purposes. That's where the mapping of the cell comes in, finding the different genes present in each cell that, with the help of molecular signals, cause the cell to turn into its final form.

The cell sketched in black marker on Goldman's board is an astrocyte progenitor, a cell that eventually turns into the star-shaped network of branches and fibers that make up the physical structure of the brain.

This explanation is as simple as can be derived from Goldman's intensely complex work. But in the corner of the board, there is a sign of something more people could relate to — drawings done by three of Goldman's children, who entertained themselves during a visit to his office.

Goldman, 49, a native of Philadelphia, calls himself a "Manhattan expatriate," one of the many who flock north to get away from the crushingly long commutes and insane real estate prices of the New York City area. Goldman and his wife, Maiken Nedergaard,a professor of neurosurgery, worked there as scientists for about 20 years at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, one of the best medical research institutions in the country.

The couple likely could have gone to their pick of elite institutions when they decided to leave Cornell. They chose Rochester in 2003, in part because, as Nedergaard said, "it was a good place to raise the kids." That the University of Rochester Medical Center was attempting to bolster its research division also was an important factor. Goldman and Nedergaard now live in Webster with their five children, ages 7 to 16.

UR built the $36 million Arthur Kornberg Medical Research wing in 2001 and invested millions more to attract the country's top scientific minds. Goldman and Nedergaard were among them, said Dr. Bradford C. Berk, CEO of the medical center.

Berk's goals for stem cell research at the UR are lofty. He believes UR can be one of the top programs in the world for cancer and neurological stem cell research, and the recruitment of two or three more researchers should help UR reach that goal, said Berk, himself a cardiovascular researcher who became the medical center's CEO this year.

"When we can recruit an internationally recognized guy like Steve Goldman, he significantly improves the total research environment," Berk said.

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