Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey

News and Reports

Stem Cell Advances

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Robert Wood Johnson Medicine Summer/Fall2005

Breakthroughs in research already are in high gear, months before the ground breaking for the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey on UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School’s New Brunswick campus. The institute, a partnership between RWJMS and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is a state-funded initiative. Ira B. Black, MD, professor and chair, Department of Neuroscience and Cell Biology, who is widely recognized for early progress in stem cell development, is the founding director of the institute.

Dr. Black reports that new techniques are being applied in an extension of his laboratory’s work with “classic” stem cells. “Presently, we are differentiating new types of cells into specialized nerve cells,” he says. “We’re hoping to determine the scope of specific cells that may be useful in differentiation, as well as in therapy. This is a new approach. Where it may lead, we can’t say now, but it looks very promising.”

  Ira B. Black, MD, professor and chair, Department of Neuroscience and Cell Biology, reports that new techniques are being applied in an extension of his laboratory’s work with “classic” stem cells.

Meanwhile, Dr. Black’s laboratory has made a significant breakthrough related to his work in converting adult human and rat bone-marrow stem cells into presumptive neurons in culture. After infusing the bone-marrow cells into the brains of rat embryos, investigators found that those cells migrated throughout the brain and differentiated into nerve cells or neurons that were appropriate to each part of the brain to which they had migrated. More recently, they learned that the infused cells survived for at least a year.

“This is extraordinary,” Dr. Black says. “We’re now at a middle-age point in the life of a rat. This may well mean that prenatal transplantation has a use throughout life. It is still speculation, but it does raise the possibility that cells transplanted prenatally would migrate throughout the brain, and might be activated to combat adult diseases.”

Although he warns that the possibilities are purely conjecture at this time, he admits they are exciting, and they open up the potential for discovery that was previously beyond the expectations of stem cell research.

“It’s all in the realm of possibility,” Dr. Black cautions. “But imagine the implications of such possibility. It’s the kind of potential that dictates we must keep moving ahead.”
Commenting on the need now to put dollars in place — targeted at $150 million for the building, and $230 million for programs — Harold L. Paz, MD, dean, says, “We’re delighted the State of New Jersey has passed important stem cell legislation. Thanks to the work pioneered in Dr. Black’s laboratory, RWJMS is well positioned to assume the leadership this legislation demands.

An example of migrating marrow stromal cells (green), distributing throughout the brain using guiding brain fibers (red).

“It encompasses a monumental opportunity, not only to partner with Rutgers, but to engage the scientific talents at the medical school, including those at the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine, The Cancer Institute of New Jersey, the Child Health Institute of New Jersey, and the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute.”

While Dr. Black’s work has been primarily in adult stem cell development, he says it is important to understand which cells are most appropriate in the treatment of specific diseases. For this reason, the institute will pursue both embryonic and adult stem cell development, and soon will include a special project to compare different cells, from different stages of life, for the purpose of identifying those that are most effective in specific situations.

Dr. Paz also reports that the multi-purpose building to house the institute will be home as well to the medical school’s Cardiovascular Institute of New Jersey, and in addition to student services and administrative offices and a parking garage, it will include the Stem Cell Institute’s research center for clinical trials, and a Good Manufacturing Practices facility, where scientists will pursue actual production of therapies.

  An example of migrating marrow stromal cells (green), distributing throughout the brain using guiding brain fibers (red).

“Among our basic and clinical science departments, and our various institutes, we have faculty members contributing important research on neurotoxicology, and other issues with relevance to stem cell research,” Dr. Paz says. “We have the largest movement disorder group in the state. We have experts in Parkinson’s disease, and we also conduct clinical trials in the disease. Our division of neurosurgery has a group that works with patients with spinal cord injuries. All of this compounds to enormous benefit for the kind of interaction that leads to discovery.”

Such interaction has already taken a giant step in still another direction. Dr. Black reports collaborative partnerships are being negotiated on a multinational scale.

“We currently are in intense discussions with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to take our research to the next step,” he says. “New Jersey is one of the world centers in pharmaceutical development. We’re in the right place to do this.”

In fact, collaboration and cooperation are bywords Dr. Black uses for continued pro-
gress at the institute.

“This is a worldwide effort that will demand a worldwide commitment,” he says. “I think it’s fair to say that New Jersey and California have assumed the leadership roles in the United States. We already are interacting with California scientists, as well as internationally, to move the field forward.

“Is there competition? Of course. From my perspective, it’s healthy competition. Time is of the absolute essence. This is an explosive field that is moving ahead so quickly that any group that slows its pace will fall behind. New Jersey has established a foremost position that simply must be pursued vigorously. And it will take both collaboration and cooperation to do so.”