September 10, 2004

Vanderbilt launches stem cell center

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Mark A. Magnuson, M.D.

Vanderbilt launches stem cell center

Vanderbilt University has formalized its commitment to one of the hottest areas of science — stem cell research — with the recent creation of the Vanderbilt Center for Stem Cell Biology (VCSCB). The new center is designed to harness existing research strengths on campus and to stimulate growth in this promising scientific area, said Mark A. Magnuson, M.D., assistant vice chancellor for Research and director of the VCSCB.

“Because of their potential for treating so many diseases, stem cells promise to impact many of our research programs,” said Magnuson, professor of Molecular Physiology & Biophysics. “Stem cell research is obviously a very active and intense area, and if we want to be among those advancing the field, which we do, we need to be focusing on it.”

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 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. Current policy allows federal funding for research using human embryonic stem cells isolated before Aug. 9, 2001.

The focus of the new center is to learn how to direct the differentiation — or cellular “maturation” — of embryonic stem cells into particular cell types that can be used therapeutically. “There are many, many steps between beginning this center and developing therapies,” Magnuson said, “but we’ve got to start taking those steps now.”

The timing of the new center’s creation with the ongoing political debate is coincidental, Magnuson said. “We’ve been working on mouse embryonic stem (ES) cells at Vanderbilt for over 10 years. A center to build on our efforts has been a long time in the making.”

Mouse ES cells are a required tool for developing “knock out” and other genetically-modified mice. Vanderbilt investigators interested in cultivating and manipulating these cells have enjoyed the expertise and support of the Transgenic/ES Cell Shared Resource since 1993.

This core laboratory will now fall under the umbrella of the VCSCB, and it will be joined in the next few years by a Human ES Cell Shared Resource designed to facilitate research efforts utilizing these cells. Vanderbilt does not have any current research projects involving human embryonic stem cells.

“The Center for Stem Cell Biology is a natural home for our highly successful Transgenic/ES Cell Shared Resource,” said Jeffrey R. Balser, M.D., Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research. “It will build on links with existing centers and programs, such as developmental biology, beta cell biology, and molecular neuroscience, and will propel Vanderbilt to the forefront of this new and exciting discipline.”

Beta cell biology — a research area focused on the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas that are destroyed in patients with type 1 diabetes – is a special strength at Vanderbilt.

Magnuson chairs the steering committee for the Beta Cell Biology Consortium, an NIH-supported international effort to convert stem cells to beta cells, with the ultimate goal of using these cells therapeutically.

“In Mark Magnuson, we have an individual who is an expert not only in stem cell research, but is arguably one of the nation’s most knowledgeable investigators in beta cell biology,” said Steven G. Gabbe, M.D., dean of the School of Medicine.

“This puts Mark and the new Center for Stem Cell Biology in the unique position of bringing these important fields together in the hopes that they will – and this is a dream – create beta cells that can be used for the treatment of diabetes mellitus.” Gabbe diagnosed himself with type 1 diabetes during his third year of medical school.

The Beta Cell Biology Consortium’s coordinating center will call the VCSCB home.

Going forward, the stem cell center may develop additional programs focused on directing the differentiation of stem cells to another cell type, such as cardiovascular cells or the particular dopamine-producing neurons destroyed by Parkinson’s disease.

Such future programs will depend on the research interests of new faculty recruits. The center plans to recruit four new faculty members over the next five years. These investigators and Magnuson will form the nuclear group of the VCSCB, which will occupy space in MRBIV.

New faculty members are being recruited in cooperation with the department of Cell and Developmental Biology.

“I view the interactions between the center and our department as mutually beneficial,” said Susan R. Wente, Ph.D., professor and chair of Cell and Developmental Biology. “The center’s mission and key new recruits should synergize with our current faculty to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Stem cell biology is a highly visible competitive field, and forming this center-based effort will allow Vanderbilt to move faster in terms of making discoveries and an impact.”

Magnuson requests that investigators interested in center participation complete a short online survey at