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Stem-cell research flourishes

Amid controversy and federal limits, study goes on in the region. New Jersey will even fund an institute, but a Pa. abortion law deters some.

Stem-cell research is flourishing at major universities, medical centers and Biotechnology companies in Pennsylvania and New Jersey despite radically different political climates in the two states.

New Jersey is the only state other than California to adopt a law allowing all types of stem-cell research, including studies using stem cells from human embryos. And with plans to spend $6.5 million to launch a $50 million Stem Cell Institute, New Jersey is poised to become the first state to directly fund stem-cell work – and circumvent federal funding restrictions that Nancy Reagan and other prominent Republicans have criticized.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, the state’s abortion-control law was interpreted by the Ridge administration to forbid the creation of human embryonic stem-cell colonies. That has had a chilling effect on all research using the cells, which can morph into all tissues and organs in the body.

“It’s probably not a felony to work with them, but just the fact that the law is there is a deterrent,” said Alan Russell, director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

But research using stem cells obtained by destroying human embryos is just part – the most contentious part – of a vast field. Scientists are making inroads using animal stem cells, as well as human stem cells from mature tissues such as blood or nerves. No one yet knows whether these “adult” stem cells, which produce subsets of specialized tissues, can be programmed to be as versatile as embryonic stem cells.

“I look at this and say there are dozens and dozens of questions that have to be answered before we can treat diseases, and many of those questions can be answered without embryonic stem cells,” Russell said.

So far, no institution in Pennsylvania or New Jersey has emerged as a research hotbed on a par with, say, Johns Hopkins University or Harvard University. Hopkins is where embryonic stem cells were first isolated six years ago, while Harvard recently announced the creation of 17 new colonies of human embryonic stem cells.

Harvard plans to freely share the colonies – a rebuke to the Bush administration, which has limited federal funding to about 19 colonies that existed before restrictions took effect.

Debate over the federal obstacles has intensified with the death of former President Ronald Reagan, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, one of the illnesses for which embryonic stem cells hold the hope of treatments.

The controversy has also made private firms even more reticent than usual to discuss their work. Debbie Hart, president of the Biotechnology Council of New Jersey, said relatively few firms had announced that they were doing stem-cell research, and fewer still said they used embryonic stem cells.

One company that has talked about its stem-cell work is Neuronyx Inc., of Malvern. It is working on one of the most immediately promising therapeutic areas, coaxing bone marrow stem cells into becoming cardiac cells to repair damage from heart attacks.

“There is a lot of controversy about whether we can regrow heart muscle,” said John Epstein, a cardiologist doing stem-cell work at the University of Pennsylvania. “As always, hopes are raised early… . We have a long way to go.”

Ira Black, a neuroscientist at Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center in New Brunswick and founding director of the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey, is more optimistic. His colleagues have done “promising work,” at least in animals, to repair hearts, spinal-cord damage, and brain damage.

“Stem-cell therapy is not just about some future Utopia. It’s about now as well,” he said.

That is why philanthropic foundations and international drug companies are already lining up to fund the new institute. “I’m not at liberty to say who they are… but we’re optimistic,” Black added.

Scientists from Pennsylvania and New Jersey institutions are involved in the stem-cell conferences, symposia and organizations that are springing up around the world. Epstein, for example, is an organizer of a new stem-cell symposium, to be held this summer in Maine, aimed at marine biologists and scientists using fish models.

“Fish make perfectly good models of many human diseases, including leukemia, anemia and heart disease,” he said.

Jefferson Medical College colon cancer researcher Bruce Boman presented his research at last year’s first meeting of the new International Society for Stem Cell Research. Using mice, his lab has found strong evidence that mutant stem cells in the lining of the colon are where colorectal cancer starts.

Boman theorizes that errant stem cells may also be the culprit in breast, brain and certain other cancers. If so, then stem cells may be a target for halting malignant growth, as well as the key to regrowing diseased or damaged tissue.

“I think the field of cancer research is just starting to catch on to this concept,” he said.

No one has a comprehensive list of stem-cell research in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, much less estimates of the costs or funding of that research.

What’s more, stem-cell research often blends with related work in gene therapy. For example, RheoGene Inc. in Norristown, a spin-off of Philadelphia chemical company Rohm & Haas Co., develops technologies to regulate gene signaling. Those innovations, Russell said, may help to turn stem cells on or off.

A sampling of other stem-cell research shows the diversity of the field:

University of Pittsburgh urologists have used stem cells from muscles to reverse Incontinence in animal models.

A University of Pennsylvania team has found stem cells in the hair follicles of mice, raising hopes of a fix for human baldness. Another group is studying genes that signal embryonic stem cells in mice to turn into nerves or other types of tissue.

At Jefferson, researchers are using rodent and rhesus monkey models to try to stabilize a brain disease similar to Alzheimer’s. Another research group is using zebrafish to understand how embryonic stem cells become either sperm or egg cells and then migrate to the proper spot in a growing embryo.

At Rutgers University in New Brunswick, researchers are using rat models to understand spinal-cord injury and develop therapies.

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