Cincinnati Children’s, UC Prepare for Expansion of Stem Cell Research

Federal Funding Initiatives Create Opportunities for New Medical Breakthroughs

Friday, March 20, 2009

Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the University of Cincinnati (UC) are preparing for an expansion of stem cell research programs as the federal government implements budget increases for biomedical research and eases restrictions on funding for embryonic stem cell research.

The expansion would enhance the extensive research collaboration between Cincinnati Children’s and the UC College of Medicine.

Already the nation’s second largest pediatric research institution, Cincinnati Children’s is positioning itself as a key participant in any national expansion of biomedical research, said Arnold Strauss, MD, director of the  Cincinnati Children’s Research Foundation and chair of pediatrics at UC. As part of the economic stimulus bill just signed into law by President Barack Obama, the National Institutes of Health is receiving a $10.4-billion increase in funding for biomedical research.

“Biomedical research helps us improve health through new knowledge and innovation and it injects $2 billion a year into Ohio’s economy,” said Dr. Strauss. “Our country is better at biomedical research than anyone else in the world. Additional federal funding will increase the pace of scientific discovery and the economic benefit that comes with it.”

Cincinnati Children’s and UC already conduct several types of stem cell research, focused on finding innovative treatments for birth defects and disease. Current programs include studies with adult stem cells, such as hematopoietic (blood) stem cells. At Cincinnati Children’s, researchers also study older embryonic stem cell lines approved for federal funding in 2001 under Bush administration restrictions.

The end of federal funding restrictions on embryonic stem cells will allow the medical center to begin studies on newer therapeutic-grade cell lines. Embryonic stem cells can become any type of cell in the body, underscoring their potential for regenerative medicine to treat birth defects and debilitating disorders like muscular dystrophy, diabetes and hemophilia, to name a few.

Cincinnati Children’s is also recruiting new researchers as it expands into the emerging area of using genetic manipulation to induce adult stem cells (such as skin cells) back into an embryonic state. This technology may allow the use of embryonic-like stem cells for research, and eventually therapy, without the ethical concerns that have been raised with embryonic stem cells.

Investigating different kinds of stem cell technologies allows researchers compare the medical utility of each, said Dr. Strauss.

“Our research foundation is deeply committed to stem cell research because of its potential to relieve incredible suffering and save the lives of children around the world,” Dr. Strauss said. “We want to be able to use stem cells to treat fatal or life-threatening genetic disorders like we use drugs to treat other diseases. Before that can happen we have to be able to study them to understand the possible risks and benefits.”

Embryonic stem cells come from an egg that is fertilized in a Petri dish. After the fertilized egg divides about six times, this microscopic ball of cells can be coaxed into becoming an embryonic stem cell line that grows indefinitely in a Petri dish. They are the biological equivalent of a blank sheet of paper, which accounts for their diversity and potential. For research purposes, eggs must be donated and then fertilized in a laboratory setting, not in a person.

Since discovered 10 years ago, researchers around the world have learned how to turn embryonic stem cells into brain cells, heart cells, pancreatic cells, and blood. These have all been effective in animals to treat diseases like Parkinson’s and diabetes. The first clinical trial in humans has been approved to for using embryonic stem cells to treat spinal cord injury. Cincinnati Children’s wants to incorporate several of these emerging technologies into future therapies for people in the Cincinnati area and beyond.

Dr. Strauss cautioned against viewing stem cell research as a medical panacea. Rather, he said, their potential should be viewed at this time more in the context of treatment rather than cure.

The Cincinnati Children’s Research Foundation has budgeted $10 million to expand stem cell research programs over the next five years. That amount could increase to as much as $30 million, depending on the status of federal and private funding proposals.

Cincinnati Children’s and UC have also established an Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversight Committee. The committee’s job is to ensure research projects are evidence-based, ethical and focused appropriately on translating science into possible treatments.

Cincinnati Children’s has been researching hematopoietic stem cells for decades and is one of the nation’s leaders in using them to successfully treat blood disorders. The medical center also has groundbreaking basic research with embryonic stem cells to see if they can be converted to insulin-producing beta cells that would benefit children with diabetes.

The UC College of Medicine has studied the use of bone marrow stem cells for the treatment of eye diseases and has conducted a clinical trial using a person’s own adult stem cells for the treatment of the chronic myocardial ischemia, or angina.

Despite its medical potential, some ethical concerns remain over embryonic stem cell research, including that it might lead to human cloning. Cincinnati Children’s, UC and the larger scientific community, remain steadfastly opposed to cloning humans. It continues to support establishment of a federal ban on such experiments.

Contact Information

Nick Miller, 513-803-6035, nicholas.miller@cchmc.org