17 Nov UW-Madison puts heart and mind into stem cells
Madison, Wis. — The answer to reversing the deterioration caused by acute diseases of the brain and heart may lie in stem-cell treatment, according to the ongoing research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
At the Wisconsin Life Sciences and Venture Conference held Wednesday at Monona Terrace, two researchers from the UW-Madison biotech department discussed how stem cells can move past current studies and provide a significant stride in treatment success rates.
Richard Moss, chair of the department of physiology at UW-Madison and director of the Cardiovascular Research Center, said that it is important to open up more avenues for stem cell use so basic research can be advanced. Currently, the main body of research on heart disease is based on models of mice and rats, which have a substantially higher heart rate than humans at 500 beats per minute.
“You can guess there’s a substantially different genetic and protein makeup in these hearts,” Moss said. “We need the human protein and genetic makeup to move forward on these diseases with high fidelity.”
Moss explained that the majority of heart problems are caused when tissues in the heart begin to degenerate, disrupting the electrical impulses and causing it to beat erratically. Erratic behavior such as this afflicts at least 5 million people, and that number is set to double by 2010. It is the cause of about one in five deaths in the United States.
According to Moss, through cardiac stem cells the heart would be able to regenerate this tissue very early on. Stem-cell therapy could counter the long-term damage that comes from not addressing the problem early enough. The cells could be delivered to the tissues in the heart quickly, as the continuous blood flow to the heart makes it easier to reach than the other organs.
“Obviously we would like to raise the ability to develop cardiac cells, but the current embryonic cells are quite small,” Moss said, citing a lack of resources as one of the main obstacles to continuing the research. “We want to avoid the unintended consequences, but there’s certainly tremendous potential in the cardiovascular field.”
Moss was followed by Clive Svendsen, an advisory board member of the Wisconsin Stem Cell Research Program, who discussed the possibilities opened up by the research on neural stem cells. Svendsen said that, compared to the heart, the brain is much more difficult to access since it is very resistant to changes, but any changes that are made have a good chance of being permanent.
Currently, neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease that involve mental deterioration are treated with glial-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) which works as a “fertilizer” for neurons and raises the level of dopamine, which the disease lowers. One strategy for getting the chemical into the brain is to insert GDNF directly in the brain, but the diffusion of the chemical is limited and costs about $2,000 a day.
Svendsen said that getting the neural stem cells into the brain can help the levels of dopamine rise by naturally encouraging the existing cells to produce more GDNF. More importantly, in encouraging GDNF the cells release a growth factor in the brain itself, creating new cells in what Svendsen called a “double whammy” that no other treatment can encourage.
With the right application, they can be used against diseases such as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which have a far more rapid degeneration than Parkinson’s and force greater splits between the neurons. Through stem cell introduction, the existing neurons can be protected and given more impetus to reform connections.
“Stem cells are very powerful … better than direct injection by far,” Svendsen said. “They can help build those support cells, and protect the neurons from the ravages of Parkinson’s and ALS.”
Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, said that while the achievements of Svendsen and Moss bring a great deal of knowledge to UW-Madison, they are only two of many applications for the cells. With further research and funding, the cells can be used to repair damage to the nervous system, bones, and optic nerves.
“At Wisconsin, the strength is far greater than neurology or cardiovascular. It’s a rapidly growing field,” Gulbrandsen said.
Les Chappell is a staff writer for WTN and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.