“Well, a fertilized egg, if you look at it, you wouldn’t see out of that one single cell (that) would come a human being.”
Contained within the tiny cells, which ultimately transform into the components of the human body, lies the potential to treat diseases previously thought to be incurable.
A little more than a year after Michigan voters approved a ballot proposal to legalize embryonic stem cell research, scientists across the state said the field is gaining momentum.
Stem cell research and collaboration between the state’s “Big Three” universities — MSU, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University — is expanding, researchers said.
On top of that, researchers said stem cell research might be a beacon of light in a state devastated by the economic crisis.
“I think it’s certainly promising in what the future can hold (for) this research,” said Jeff Mason, executive director of the University Research Corridor.
Despite the opportunities abound for stem cell research in the state, researchers said many hurdles need to be cleared.
Stem cells at State
Stem cell research at MSU is relatively sparse, Trosko said, and focuses primarily on two areas: embryonic and adult stem cells.
Embryonic stem cells are those taken from a fertilized animal or human embryo. Adult stem cells, which are Trosko’s area of expertise, are those found in the tissues and organs of adult human organisms.
Trosko said his research with adult stem cells began about three decades ago at MSU. At his laboratory in the Food Safety and Toxicology Building, Trosko and a colleague research possible medical applications for adult stem cells.
Trosko said he researches how adult stem cells could be used to treat cancer patients, among other things. More recently, Trosko published a paper that said adult stem cells can be used for testing new pharmaceuticals and the safety of new chemicals.
“There’s all kinds of therapeutic uses for stem cells,” Trosko said.
Embryonic stem cell research at MSU primarily is carried out by Jose Cibelli, a professor of animal science and physiology.
Working out of MSU’s Cellular Reprogramming Laboratory in Anthony Hall, Cibelli and a team of graduate students examine embryonic stem cells from animals and humans.
Cibelli said his research with embryonic stem cells ranges from therapeutic applications to attempting to map how body cells can return to stem cell form.
“There’s a lot to cover,” Cibelli said.
Trosko said although his research with adult stem cells has carried on for about 30 years, MSU could be much further in the field.
Do you want the news without having to hunt for it?
Sign up for our morning s'newsletter. It's everything your friends are talking about and then some. And it's free!
He said the university missed its opportunity in the late 1990s, when the field started gaining national attention.
“It’s like that old saying, ‘You get to the station, but the train has left,’” Trosko said.
In spite of this, he said MSU’s scarce stem cell research cannot easily be compared with efforts at other universities because many have more resources than MSU.
“There are lots of people at (U-M),” Trosko said. “They’ve got a lot more money. They’ve got lots of people donating money.”
One thing MSU does stand to gain, Cibelli said, is its academic ties with other universities in the state.
“You can’t do research in isolation,” he said. “You have to collaborate.”
In addition to his research at MSU, Cibelli said he works with scientists at U-M as part of the Consortium for Stem Cell Therapies.
The consortium launched last spring with the intent of producing new lines of human embryonic stem cells.
Sue O’Shea, the consortium’s co-director, said the consortium facilitates collaboration between scientists in a way that benefits the field.
“You can always do more with more hands and more brains,” O’Shea said.
“Each group sort of has a specialty field. Each person brings something different to the table.”
Collaboration between universities in the state plays an instrumental role in Michigan’s stake in stem cell research, and might lead to both a scientific and economic boom, Mason said.
“The universities have played an important role both in Michigan and around the country in terms of cutting-edge research and exploring a number of areas of research and scientific discovery,” Mason said.
Cibelli said although there always is competition between universities for research grants and other funding, a great deal of research could not even be carried out without collaboration between universities.
“We don’t want to get scooped, but at the same time, you should not forget the reason why we’re doing this is because of (other) people,” Cibelli said.
But according to the researchers, one thing has the potential to stand in the way of their work.
Bipartisan legislation is making its way through the state Senate, it seeks to amend Proposition 2, which passed in 2008 and legalized embryonic stem cell research under certain conditions.
If passed, the package of bills would, among other things, add penalties for breaking the relatively new law, state Sen. Tom George, R-Kalamazoo, said.
The bills would establish reporting requirements for researchers and penalties when regulations are violated.
Several legislators said the bills are necessary because the Legislature typically revisits constitutional amendments passed by voters to provide a more concise framework.
Researchers, however, are calling foul and saying the law passed by voters is clear enough. If the bills are signed into law, researchers said it only would add confusion.
“The law passed by voters is mostly clear,” said George, the primary sponsor of the bills.
“There are a couple of definitions that needed to be clarified.”
Leonard Fleck, a professor in MSU’s Center for Ethics and Humanities in Life Sciences, said the legislation and other concerns are partially fueled by ethical, religious and ideological concerns.
“The argument I would make here is the kinds of ethical values that are appropriate for shaping legislation are ethical values that reflect, in a strict sense, what can be called the public interest,” Fleck said.
Fleck said legislation concerning cleaning up the environment is a good example of how legislation should be shaped in the public interest. Seeking to change the stem cell research law as it stands, he said, is not.
Regardless, Fleck said, the future of stem cell research in the state looks “relatively bright.”
Into the future
With the coming of U-M’s stem cell consortium and an up-and-coming Stem Cell Commercialization Center at Wayne State, researchers said they have reason to believe the future will be beneficial for stem cell research in Michigan. Both the scientific community and private sector stand to gain from the research, they said.
“The future is going into a direction (that) is more and more interaction between universities and private industry,” Cibelli said.
He said Michigan might be a more attractive prospect for corporations to invest in, with an increased emphasis on stem cell research. Universities in particular, he said, might benefit from increased federal grant money.
“We can hope that (the National Institutes of Health) will increase funding, or we can hope that we get more federal funds coming in,” Cibelli said. “You have to be creative.”
Share and discuss “Ac'cell'eration” on social media.