September 14, 2001

Stem cell research to progress at Vanderbilt

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Brigid L.M. Hogan, Ph.D., will direct the new program at Vanderbilt.

Stem cell research to progress at Vanderbilt

A new program at Vanderbilt will draw on diverse strengths across campus to stimulate growth in one of the hottest areas of science – stem cell research.

Stem cells are the basic building blocks for the body’s many different tissues, and scientists believe that in the future these cells could be used to generate replacement cells and tissues as treatments for diseases ranging from diabetes to Parkinson’s to heart disease.

These “founder” cells come in multiple varieties – from different adult tissues and from embryos. Research using human embryonic stem cells – those isolated from human embryos before they have implanted in the uterus – has fueled national debate on whether federal funding should support such studies.

“The time is obviously ripe for all groups interested in stem cell research and organogenesis (the development of organs) to combine talents and resources to move Vanderbilt to the forefront,” said Brigid L.M. Hogan, Ph.D., Hortense B. Ingram Professor of Molecular Oncology and director of the recently launched Stem Cell and Organogenesis Program.

“There is quite a lot of stem cell-related research going on at Vanderbilt, and we believe that by bringing together disparate groups we can build a program that will be more than the sum of its parts.”

“We are pleased that Brigid Hogan, an internationally recognized stem cell and developmental biology researcher, will lead the new program,” said Dr. Harry R. Jacobson, vice chancellor for Health Affairs. “Her commitment to the advancement of this field will stimulate new discoveries and position Vanderbilt as a leading site for stem cell studies.”

“I am personally thrilled that Brigid has agreed to lead this exciting research program,” added Lee E. Limbird, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research. “Brigid has established herself as a world leader in developmental biology and as a thought leader in the implications of stem cell biology. Society will be well served by her undertaking this important initiative, and Vanderbilt is fortunate to be able to provide the environment where she implements her vision.”

The Stem Cell and Organogenesis Program is open to investigators interested in any type of stem cells or the processes of tissue and organ formation. “There are dozens of possible research topics of interest to program participants,” said Hogan, also an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “The tent is very wide for this program – it will include researchers studying stem cells in any system, any organism, any tissue.”

Hogan hopes that the program will spark new research initiatives by bringing together diverse research groups – investigators interested for example in basic cell biology, development, genetics, organ and tissue transplantation, and bioengineering. The program will host a one-day research symposium where interested investigators can share research ideas and findings. “The important thing is to get people talking – people with tools and technologies to move the field forward,” Hogan said.

Plans are underway to host monthly seminars, featuring either visiting speakers or Vanderbilt researchers, and to develop a Web site and database of tools and techniques available in Vanderbilt laboratories. The Stem Cell and Organogenesis Program – to be guided by a leadership committee and an external advisory board – also will participate in developing shared research resources and in recruiting new faculty members.

Human embryonic stem cell research has sparked controversy over the ethics of using cells obtained from human embryos. In an address to the nation on Aug. 9, President George W. Bush announced that his administration would allow federal funds to support research using already-existing human embryonic stem cell lines. The cell lines must have been derived from embryos that were donated by in vitro fertilization patients.

Currently, no research with human embryonic stem cells is going on at Vanderbilt, Hogan said. “But this might change in the future if people have exciting results with animal models that could be tested with the human cells.”

Embryonic stem cells have the potential to develop into any of the body’s many different cell types, among them nerves, bone, muscle, and gut. Stem cells isolated from adult tissues – the best known are blood stem cells that reside in the bone marrow – are thought to have more limited potential compared to embryonic stem cells.

Research efforts that explore both embryonic and tissue-specific/adult stem cells, and that use a variety of model organisms like mice, zebra fish, fruit flies and worms, will yield the highest returns in progressing toward potential disease treatments, Hogan said. To turn stem cells into new therapies, investigators must decipher how to coax the cells to mature into desired cell types.

“This is an extremely useful area of research, but it’s still very much in the stages of being explored,” she said. “I think it will be five to 10 years before scientists have worked out how to reproducibly drive the differentiation of stem cells down one pathway or another.”

To be added to an e-mail information list for the Stem Cell and Organogenesis Program, contact Angela Land-Dedrick (