A great day for stem cell research

Stem cell researcher Willy Lensch
Stem cell researcher Willy Lensch

By M. William Lensch, PhD, from the Stem Cell Program at Children’s Hospital Boston

At just a little after 12:30 p.m. EST today we reached the end of a very long road. That was when the NIH announced that the first human embryonic stem cell lines (hESC) had been approved for federal funding eligibility under the rules put forth in President Obama’s executive order from earlier this year. A small group of us here in George Daley’s lab were listening in to the NIH press conference over the speaker phone. I couldn’t help but clap my hands and cheer! A lot of us have worked toward this moment for a long time.

I joined George’s lab toward the end of 2001, not long after President Bush permitted funding for a few hESC lines but restricted federal money for any others. Since that time and despite the restrictions, our lab has continued to work in the field using hESC because of the incredible things these cells could teach us. Quite honestly, an important aspect of what made that work possible was simply being here at Children’s Hospital Boston. Children’s knew the work was important, too important to set aside, and now these years later, we’ve got a tremendous Stem Cell Program because of this forward-looking vision and support. Of the 13 hESC lines approved today, 11 of them were derived here, at this hospital.

The first cell line listed on the official NIH Registry is NIHhESC-09-001. This cell line and several more were published in 2008 from work conducted by Paul Lerou and others in George Daley’s laboratory. The lab-based portion that has brought us to today has been enormous. Each cell line listed in the NIH Registry represents hundreds if not thousands of hours of work to establish, culture and validate before the first actual experiments could even begin. Now that these cell lines are eligible for funding through the NIH, we are able to apply for long awaited federal dollars to bolster the private contributions that have nurtured our work over the years. I’ve always thought of our research as taking up “lost causes” of medicine; conditions where we simply don’t know enough to be able to offer a substantial therapy to patients and their families. We are talking about diseases so rare that the only time I ever meet anyone who has heard of one of them is because a family member or friend has it currently or, unfortunately, died from it. Having hESC lines allows us to ask questions about how tissues form during the earliest stages of both normal and abnormal development alike. It’s a powerful methodology and is forging a veritable renaissance in our thinking about human development and disease.

Human ES cells have also driven the science towards new areas like cellular reprogramming; work that shows that mature cells of the body may be pushed “developmentally backwards” to a state like an embryonic stem cell. These so-called induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSC are an amazing technological breakthrough that, like hESC, are helping us blaze news trails into understanding the very foundations of disease. Our lab has worked in this area as well, publishing papers on not only the basics of cellular reprogramming, but also providing a more detailed analysis of how the process works, how reprogramming may be used to generate cell lines that contain disease-causing mutations, and in turn, how these mutations directly impact complex disease processes. It’s been exciting research (to say the least) and has only been possible because of what we’ve learned using ES cells.

What also came to mind in listening to the press conference today was all of the churches, town halls, libraries, retirement homes, pubs, school classrooms, politicians’ offices, board rooms, and other venues that I and other folks have been to in order to explain this work more clearly and to encourage a more informed approach to national stem cell policy. All the interviews, debates, panel discussions, public lectures, radio call-in shows, and the like have also worked steadily towards this day. Looking back, it’s a bit mind boggling to reflect on it all. For example, in the “early days,” both George and I once lectured in rooms posted with armed police officers just in case things got out of hand. It’s amazing to sit here and remember those events. What’s more important though, is to consider what today’s news means looking forward.

What it means is that we are going to be in a much better position to capitalize on what we’ve accomplished thus far. The “lost causes” still remain and the most important days of research remain ahead of us. I look forward to them, very much in fact. Today’s news also reminds me that hard work pays off and that having the patience to continue making your case despite other, often louder voices, can lead to better things. It’s been a group effort with a cast of thousands. To all of them, I say, congratulations. As I mentioned at the beginning, we’ve reached the end of a very long road, though several others continue to stretch out before us. It comes with no small sense of relief to see that we are now better prepared for those journeys than we once were. Here’s to the future.

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  • *comments taken from Children’s Facebook fan page*

    Beth
    Think of all of the lives that can potentially be saved now! Great news!

    Linda
    saw this yesterday. what an accomplishment ! will hopefully save many lives !

    Elaine
    Finally.

    Jessica Hickey
    Great work Children’s Hospital!!

    Jill Podgurski-Smith
    Amazing! I have a newborn niece with Myelomeningocele Spina Bifida. We saved her cord blood and are praying for a miracle!

    Lori J Curtis
    This is great news. I have supported this for many years. Great work Childrens Hospital.

    Nemesys Nexus
    About time this research was able to move forward, good show!

    Mary-Beth Washburn
    YAY!!!!!! there is hope yet for this country!!!

    Cynthia Gartner
    YAY!!!!!

    Jill
    absolutely wonderful.A good day for research!

    Carol Clancy
    Children Hospital is the BEST!!!

    Jessica Hickey
    I agree Children’s Hospital is the BEST!!

    Brenda
    So gald to hear this news. So proud of all the people at childrens involved involved with the stem cell research. Woo Hoo Great job… Medical miracles are on the way!!!! Way to go Childrens.

    Amanda Kate Donovan
    incredible! great job!

    Sherri
    Awesome !!!!

    Michelle
    Can hardly contain my excitement at the potential

    George Towne
    This is great news

    Susan Skorb Latham
    Finally!!!! May many wonderful things come from this.

    Kellie
    Horrible news. Those poor aborted babies!!!!!!!

    Andrea Rogers
    those aren’t aborted babies

    Rosie Hunter
    Kellie….cells are not babies but the lives they save may be babies!

    Melissa Thayer
    when the stem cells aid us in eliminating things like als and ms, cancers, diabetes type 1 and 2 among so many other things people will wonder why they were so against this.

    Jennifer Bishop Mains
    Well put Melissa!!!

    Lori
    My son was born with a rare birth defect that we and he will have to live with for the rest of our lives. We grew up at Children’s and it is still our home and will always be a part of our family. GOD BLESS Childrens and all the hard work they do to save our babies who come into this world struggling and fightening. One baby born into this world with a birth defect is one too many and research needs to be done. Our sons birth defect has no answers or reason as to why.

    Leti
    a huge step in the right direction.

    Kellie
    I stand corrected. I was thinking of something else. Thankfully I am a humble person and I’m not afraid of being corrected. With that said, I am still opposed to stem cell research. Have a wonderful holiday season and God bless everyone.

    Naomi Palmer
    Yay!!! Stem cells saved my baby boys life ?

  • Tom

    Kellie’s uninformed position shows that there remains a large portion of people in this country that need to take some time to educate themselves and get away from kneejerk reactions

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