U-M launches new embryonic stem cell research consortium

A U-M consortium announced March 9 will create new embryonic stem cell lines that will aid the search for disease treatments and cures.

The A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute Consortium for Stem Cell Therapies is the first major embryonic stem cell research program launched in Michigan since the Nov. 4 passage of a state constitutional amendment allowing scientists to create new stem cell lines using surplus embryos from fertility clinics.
This highly magnified human blastocyst (the early embryo) is about the same size as a period at the end of a printed sentence. Excess embryos used for research would never be used for fertility purposes, but are routinely discarded as medical waste. (Photo courtesy of Gary Smith)

The founding of this center — combined with the recent state law change and the executive order President Obama signed March 9 easing restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research — is expected to transform embryonic stem cell research at the University.

“The Consortium for Stem Cell Therapies will catalyze efforts by world-class scientists at the University of Michigan who are devoting their full talents to the search for new treatments and cures,” said President Mary Sue Coleman. “At the University of Michigan, we believe stem cell research offers one of our best hopes for finding new treatments and cures for a wide variety of diseases.”

The center will be based at the Medical School, and the work is expected to begin this spring. Funding commitments of nearly $2 million have been secured to start the program, and additional fund-raising efforts are underway.

“In addition to enabling important new science and clinical work, this consortium puts us in an incredibly strong position to pursue any new federal funds that become available for embryonic stem cell research, and to recruit the brightest young scientists in the field,” said Doug Engel, chair of the cell and developmental biology department and chair of the new consortium’s scientific advisory board.

“This initiative will help move the University of Michigan to the forefront of every aspect of stem cell biology,” Engel said.
Sean Morrison, left, director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology, answers questions during a press conference announcing a U-M consortium that will create new embryonic stem cell lines to aid the search for disease treatments and cures. He is joined by research scientists Gary Smith, director of Assisted Reproductive Technologies Laboratoris and Gamete Cryopreservation Laboratory at the Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Sue O'Shea, professor of cell and developmental biology. Photos by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services.
Theresa Gratch, research laboratory specialist senior, Cell and Developmental Biology, in researcher Sue O'Shea's lab.

The consortium will develop new embryonic stem cell lines for U-M researchers and clinicians. In addition, collaborations are being negotiated between U-M and its University Research Corridor partners, Michigan State University and Wayne State University. Collaborations also are in the works with Oakland University, U-M-Dearborn and Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, said center co-director Sue O'Shea, professor of cell and developmental biology.

“We're talking about an initiative that extends beyond the University of Michigan,” O'Shea said. “This center will provide critical resources to other institutions while building partnerships that could grow to become regional in scope.”

In addition to deriving new embryonic stem cell lines, researchers will use recently developed techniques to convert adult skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells, known as iPS cells. These reprogrammed cells display the most scientifically valuable properties of embryonic stem cells, while enabling researchers to bypass embryos altogether.

A top priority of the consortium is to derive new lines of human embryonic stem cells and iPS cells that carry the genes responsible for inherited diseases. These cell lines will be used to probe the causes and progression of disease, and to test potential therapies. Likely early disease targets include neurological conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as diabetes.

“There are very few university programs in the United States that are deriving new embryonic stem cell lines, and even fewer focusing on disease-affected lines,” said consortium co-director Gary Smith, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology. Smith directed the U-M fertility clinic for the past decade.

“Our special niche will be creating, studying and understanding normal and abnormal development of disease-affected lines,” Smith said. “And these lines will be invaluable in the clinic, as well as the laboratory. We’ll use the latest derivation techniques to ensure that these lines qualify to be used, some day, on patients participating in clinical trials.”

Smith said the consortium will leverage one of U-M’s core strengths: interdisciplinary collaborative research. The new center will build on existing partnerships between scientists and clinicians at the Medical School, the Life Sciences Institute, the College of Engineering, the School of Dentistry, the School of Public Health, LSA and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

“The work that we've done with embryonic stem cell lines to date is important, but it’s really the tip of the iceberg compared to what the future holds,” he said.

Embryonic stem cells are the body’s master cells; they replicate endlessly and form the more than 200 cell types of the human body. Scientists hope these remarkably versatile cells — and the iPS cells that mimic them — someday can replace faulty cells or diseased tissues in failing organs. This fledgling field is known as regenerative medicine, and the new consortium positions U-M to play a leadership role.

The consortium will be among the first groups in the country to derive new embryonic stem cell lines that are linked to a database containing genetic and medical-history information about the embryo donors and their families. The database will enable researchers to examine how the disease genes in a given cell line have manifested themselves in previous generations.

“In my Program for Neurology for Research & Discovery, our scientists study a spectrum of diseases — ALS, Alzheimer’s, diabetic complications, childhood muscle diseases, to name a few,” said Dr. Eva Feldman, director of the U-M A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute.

“We will now be able to obtain stem cell lines to better understand the cause and develop new therapies for these diseases,” Feldman said. “Can you imagine what a powerful tool stem cells will be?”

Human embryonic stem cell work has been underway for several years at the University. O'Shea currently directs the Michigan Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research, which stores and studies cell lines approved by the Bush administration, and trains researchers to use them.

The new consortium will supersede that center, which formed in 2002. While taking on the additional tasks of deriving embryonic and iPS stem cell lines, the new consortium will continue to provide many of the core services provided by its predecessor. The consortium will be a cell-line repository, and staff members will train other scientists to work with the lines.

At U-M, human embryonic stem cell work also is underway at the Center for Stem Cell Biology, launched in 2005 and located at the Life Sciences Institute. Researchers at the LSI-based center work with both adult and embryonic stem cells.

Sean Morrison directs the Center for Stem Cell Biology and will serve on the new consortium’s scientific advisory board. Morrison said the two entities are complementary: Both contribute to the larger goal of bolstering U-M’s stem-cell research program.

“We've been laying the groundwork for this consortium for years, and everything is finally coming together exactly the way we had hoped,” Morrison said.

“By improving the facilities and resources available for embryonic stem cell research at the University of Michigan, this new consortium will enhance our ability to recruit new faculty to the Center for Stem Cell Biology. So the new consortium is one important element of a larger university plan.”

To create new embryonic stem cell lines, the A. Alfred Taubman Consortium for Embryonic Stem Cell Therapies will use surplus embryos remaining following infertility treatment. Several hundred early stage embryos — which would otherwise have been discarded — have been donated and consented for use in research.

“Embryonic stem cell research is the most important advancement in medical science since the advent of antibiotics a half century ago,” said A. Alfred Taubman, philanthropist, retail pioneer and U-M alumnus. “The creation of this consortium positions the state of Michigan at the forefront of this promising scientific and medical frontier. In doing so, we will make this a healthier world for generations to come.”

So far, funding for the project has been pledged by the A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute, Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs Dr. Robert Kelch, Medical School Dean Dr. James Woolliscroft, the Life Sciences Institute, the College of Engineering, the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, the Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases, the Cardiovascular Center, the Department of Neurology, the Department of Pathology, and the Clinical and Translational Science Award consortium.

“Important collaborations like this consortium are critical to meeting medicine’s greatest challenges,” Woolliscroft said. “By partnering with our colleagues in the region, we can accelerate the translation of scientific discoveries into societal benefit.”

The consortium will fully conform to the provisions of the state constitutional amendment approved by Michigan voters in November 2008. Additionally, U-M will strictly adhere to the guidelines for the conduct of human embryonic stem cell research issued by the International Society for Stem Cell Research.