For Kansas University scientists, it has been the high-tech, laboratory version of making lemonade out of lemons.
During the Bush administration, researchers at KU and across the country essentially were banned from receiving federal funding to conduct research on embryonic stem cells that some scientists say could unlock new medical breakthroughs.
For most in the scientific community, the ban has been considered a setback. For some KU researchers, though, it also has been a spur to look deeper into the world of nonembryonic stem cells.
“Having not had access to those embryonic stem cell lines has, in its own backhanded way, been good because it has forced innovation in terms of looking at other stem cell systems,” said Laird Forrest, an assistant professor in pharmaceutical chemistry at KU.
In March, President Barack Obama lifted the ban, clearing the way for researchers to again begin applying for federal grants to research new embryonic stem cell lines. But whether the new federal policy will lead to KU researchers to dive into the embryonic stem cell arena is still an open question.
“My choice has been to pursue what we’re already good at here,” said Michael Detamore, an associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering.
Cutting the cord
What KU is becoming good at, researchers said, is tapping the potential of nonembryonic stem cells.
Detamore is part of a team of researchers working to use stem cells from umbilical cords to regenerate bone and cartilage, which could be helpful in treating a variety of bone and joint disorders.
Using umbilical cord stem cells avoids the controversy surrounding the use of stem cells from embryos, which are fertilized eggs that have begun to produce cells. The use of human embryos has created concerns because the embryos must be destroyed for the stem cells to be used.
“I think this has some advantages,” Detamore said of the use of umbilical cord stem cells. “You have cells that are being discarded on a daily basis. Nobody misses the umbilical cord, and there is no political controversy with it.”
Plus, Detamore said he thinks the use of umbilical cord stem cells could be used to treat a variety of medical conditions in the future. He said he can envision the day when parents will have the stem cells from the umbilical cords of their newborn children stored.
“Basically children could have their own stem cells banked for future use,” Detamore said. “It is not invasive. It is not like having to go in and extract bone marrow.”
Some of those stem cells that are stored away could someday be used to fight off cancer.
Forrest and a team of researchers are looking at how to use stem cells from individuals who have cancer to deliver drugs that can treat cancerous tumors.
“We want to try to use the patient’s own stem cells to do that. Otherwise, you run the chance of the stem cell being rejected by the body,” Forrest said. “That is part of the reason why we really have no interest in embryonic stem cells.”
Forrest’s work is still in the “petri dish stage,” but he said researchers already have discovered that certain stem cells are naturally drawn to inflammation and tumor growth. What researchers now are trying to figure out is a way for the stem cell to be a vehicle to deliver drugs and other treatments to the tumor.
“It is pretty exciting because a problem with cancer treatment is always that you end up hurting the healthy tissues, too,” Forrest said. “We hope that this could really help alleviate a lot of the side effects of cancer treatment.”
Even if KU researchers don’t expand into the embryonic stem cell field, scientists at KU could still benefit from the lifting of the federal funding ban.
“The U.S. has been the leader in the life sciences industry, but that has been put at risk,” Forrest said. “The funding rates have just been abysmal. You write 10 grants hoping to get one funded. Hopefully that will begin to change.”
Detamore believes there will be a significant increase in the amount of federal money flowing to stem cell research, but he said competition for the funding will continue to be stiff because there is a lot of pent-up demand for the funding.
Seeing what advances come out of the surge of research will be interesting and perhaps extremely exciting, Detamore said.
“If you could find a way to tell cells to do what they’re supposed to do, you could revolutionize medicine as we know it,” Detamore said. “In AIDS, there are cells not doing what they’re supposed to do. In cancer, there are cells not doing what they are supposed to do.
“It is not just stem cells that may be able to do that, but stem cells probably are the leading candidate to do it. Stem cells may hold the key.”