Schenectady County

Grant to fund stem cell project

Dr. Stewart Sell has been studying liver cancer since the 1970s. He’s shown that bone marrow cells c
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Dr. Stewart Sell has been studying liver cancer since the 1970s. He’s shown that bone marrow cells can become liver cells and is trying to figure out whether bone marrow cells can become liver cancer.

Now Sell is turning his attention to whether bone marrow cells can become breast cancer.

Earlier this month, the Albany-based Ordway Research Institute, where Sell works, received a $100,000 one-year grant from the state. The infusion of cash will help Sell take his breast cancer research, which he has been working on for about a year and a half, despite not having any grant money for the project, to another level.

“Breast cancer is more important than liver cancer from a sociological standpoint,” Sell said.

Overall, the state awarded $14.5 million in stem cell grants to 25 research organizations; Ordway was the only research center in the Capital Region to receive one of the grants, which are part of the state’s 11-year, $600 million stem cell research program. Although most of the state grants fund embryonic stem cell research, Sell’s work involves only adult stem cells.

The grants were approved by the Empire State Stem Cell Board, which the state established last April with the goal of furthering embryonic stem cell research in New York. In 2001, President Bush announced restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research; in response, states have begun funding their own embryonic stem cell initiatives. Scientists have also complained that the federal government’s investment in research and development is declining, making it a struggle for the United States to keep pace with research in other countries.

Robin Gelburd, who chairs New Yorkers for the Advancement of Medical Research, a consortium of more than 40 organizations that support embryonic stem cell research, said last week’s round of state grants send a powerful message to scientists. “This really puts out the welcome mat,” she said. “The brain drain was real.”

mice used

“In this day and age, funding is very difficult,” Sell said. Research institutions such as Ordway “are especially vulnerable to the drops in funding that have gone on.”

The Ordway Research Institute was formed in 2002, with the goal of bringing scientists together to collaborate on cutting-edge research in four areas: emerging infections and host defense, cancer, genomics/pharmacogenomics, and neural and vascular biology. Ordway is located in the Center for Medical Science, a 150,000-square-foot research facility.

In his research, Sell uses male transgenic mice — mice that have been genetically engineered in the laboratory so that a specific gene is added to their DNA, allowing scientists to study the function of a specific gene.

In these mice, the inserted gene causes breast cancer. Sell then replaces the bone marrow in female mice with bone marrow from the male transgenic mice. In doing this, he hopes to see whether the bone marrow from the male transgenic mice will become breast cancer in the female mice. “If bone marrow cells that contain cancer go to breast tissue and interact, will [the mouse] get breast cancer?” he said.

Preliminary studies, Sell said, “show that this may happen.    The mice we transplant do get cancer of the breast. But we haven’t shown that this is from the bone marrow cells.”

cells replenished

Down the road, this research could have a practical application, Sell said. “If cancer cells come from bone marrow, might it be possible to prevent that from happening by blocking the cells?”

The tissues in the human body are continually renewed by adult stem cells, undifferentiated cells that replenish dying cells and damaged tissues.

As people age, their dying and damaged cells are replenished with cells from their bone marrow. Sell said he was interested in determining whether bone marrow cells sometime develop into breast cancer when they go to the breast tissue.

“If this really happens, we should be able to show it,” Sell said. Other studies, he said, have reported that bone marrow cells can develop into different types of cancer, such as gastrointestinal cancer.

Most of the time, of course, this doesn’t happen. “Bone marrow cells replace cells in other tissues,” Sell said. “That happens normally in aging.” But sometimes, he suggested, mutations occur, leading to cancer.

Gelburd praised the state for announcing the grants fairly quickly; the state board that awarded the grants was created last summer. “It’s critical to get the money out the door and directed to this area,” she said. “So many states are moving into this area.    [The grants] send out a signal that this administration and Legislature takes this very seriously.” She recalled a speech Spitzer gave at Columbia University in 2006, when he was campaigning for governor, vowing to “do something bold and innovative in stem cell research.”

grants opposed

“They’re making good on that process,” Gelburd said. “We need private philanthropy, but we need public support as well.”

Embryonic stem cell research is controversial; opponents equate it with abortion, saying it destroys human life.

The New York State Catholic Conference, which has long opposed embryonic stem cell research, was disappointed in the state’s decision to distribute the grants, said Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the group. “Unless someone wants to bring a lawsuit to stop the funding, there’s not much we can do at this point,” he said. “Once the money starts flowing, we know that what we’re going to be seeing is embryos being killed.”

Poust criticized the Empire State Stem Cell Board’s quick turnaround on the grants. New research, he said, suggests that cutting-edge stem cell research is possible without the destruction of embryonic stem cells; the state should have taken more time, and pursued other options. “We had a chance to position ourselves as leaders in new ethical, medical research,” he said. “The science doesn’t require [the destruction of the embryo] anymore. We’re hoping that in the future funding is committed to ethical research.”

In November, two teams of scientists in Japan and the United States reported that they could induce adult human skin cells to behave much like embryonic stem cells; if the research holds up, it could offer scientists a way to study and treat illnesses without using embryonic stem cells.

Those who support enbryonic stem cell research say embryonic stem cells, which can be manipulated in a lab to develop into any type of tissue, hold great promise, and could help scientists find cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

The grants handed out last week have three purposes: continuing stem cell research, purchasing large equipment or infrastructure to be used in stem cell research and training scientists to enter the field of stem cell research.

In a statement, Lt. Gov. David Paterson said that more research grants will be announced this year, “as the Stem Cell Board is currently considering several additional funding proposals.”

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