State labs on cutting edge

When it comes to stem cell research, California and Massachusetts lead the nation with hot-shot scientists and well-funded laboratories. But Georgia has its own stable of scientists working on the stem cell frontier, and the groundbreaking experiment launched on Peachtree Street could help raise the profile of Georgia’s stem cell efforts.

Emory University, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia all have scientists conducting advanced stem cell research. And the Shepherd Center can now boast that it is the first site in the world to test the safety of a treatment that scientists hope will someday help paralyzed patients walk again.

“Shepherd has now established their own precedent for running a stem cell-based clinical trial and that level of experience and expertise will be coveted,” said Hans Keirstead, a neuroscientist at the University of California Irvine who pioneered the therapy being tested in the trial. “Absolutely, they will have a real leg up on the rest of the world.”

The prospect of more embryonic stem cell experiments in Georgia, though, is likely to face opposition. The science is opposed by many in the state’s pro-life community, who say the research destroys human life.

The trial at Shepherd is sponsored by Geron Corp., a company based in California. And California has something Georgia can’t match: $3 billion in public funding for stem cell research created when voters approved a ballot measure in 2004.

But researchers here say Georgia does have a place at the table, given its strong research programs in engineering, basic science and medicine. And much of the stem cell research in Georgia does not involve embryonic cells at all.

“We’re very well poised to be a leader in some of these areas,” said Todd McDevitt, director of Georgia Tech’s stem cell engineering center. “There is tremendous potential.”

‘A complete package’

The research going on inside McDevitt’s lab, as well as labs at the University of Georgia and in clinical settings and labs at Emory University, is difficult for non-scientists to comprehend. But it is inspiring to many people with illnesses who imagine the possibilities: the ability to repair damaged heart tissue, a means of controlling cancer cells, or the possibility of effective treatments for Parkinson’s disease and diabetes.

 Stem cells are the building blocks of the human body and have the potential to turn into the cells that build the brain, the heart or other parts of the body.

“What we’ve got going for us in Georgia is that we have quite a diversity of people working in this field,” said Steve Stice, director of the regenerative bioscience center at the University of Georgia.

While Georgia doesn’t have as many researchers as the powerhouse states, those here are working at the same level of complexity. “I think our scientists can match up to any of them,” Stice said.

Stice’s lab is one of five National Institutes of Health stem cell training centers, and has trained scientists from Georgia to Mumbai in new techniques. Stice also operates a private company, a unique opportunity in academia, that might help attract other researchers to the state.

Stice has pioneered new stem cell techniques and is collaborating on a variety of applications. While there is a lot of focus on the potential benefits of placing stem cells into patients, Stice said he sees great possibilities in the use of stem cells to test the effectiveness of compounds in treating diseases. His lab has already developed a method to test new compounds for Alzheimer’s disease.

“All the major pharmaceutical companies have purchased our cells for research,” Stice said.

Stice, whose lab has produced more than 50 cloned calves and 100 cloned pigs, said the University of Georgia’s veterinary school is also helpful to Georgia’s biotech credentials.

“Georgia has a complete package and we’re working between institutions very well,” Stice said.

Variety of projects

In McDevitt’s lab at Georgia Tech, the engineering side of stem cell research is the specialty. The up-and-coming researcher directs a unique lab that uses engineering principles to find ways to manipulate stem cells so that they can be used in therapies effectively. Among his projects is working on the technology to turn a stem cell into a heart muscle cell that could help repair damage from a heart attack.

Embryonic stem cells are isolated from human embryos that are only a few days old. But stem cells are also found in adults. Blood-forming stem cells from bone marrow have been used in transplants for 40 years. Scientists are also closely studying the potential of a new kind of stem cell: adult cells reprogrammed so that they are similar to embryonic stem cells.

Emory used adult stem cells to conduct its first bone marrow transplant in 1979 and has since completed more than 3,000 of the procedures, which treat leukemia, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkins lymphoma and other blood disorders.

Dr. Arshed Quyyumi at Emory is testing in clinical trials the use of stem cells from bone marrow to help repair or regrow blood vessels to treat peripheral artery disease and to help patients recover from heart attacks.

Emory researchers are on the cutting edge with a clinical trial that is the first in the nation testing the safety of fetal stem cell injections into the spinal cord to treat ALS, the debilitating condition known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Restrictions looming?

Dr. Nicholas Boulis, the surgeon working on the trial, said California has an edge in stem cell research because of its supportive political climate.

“There’s a difference in Georgia and California in what the people of those states will embrace,” Boulis said. “California is broke, yet they are still pumping money into research.”

He said while researchers in Georgia are working hard to emerge as significant players in the biotech world, opposition to embryonic stem cell research among Georgia’s large pro-life community is a potential obstacle.

“If the state of Georgia says I can’t do what I’m doing, then I’ll be gone in the blink of an eye,” Boulis said.

Dan Becker, president of Georgia Right to Life, said he plans to push for legislation banning embryonic stem cell research when the General Assembly convenes in January.

The General Assembly has considered, but never passed, legislation to restrict stem cell research.

Scientists conducting stem cell research rarely need to obtain the human embryos that are the source of the cells they use. Stem cells can be isolated from embryos, which are only a few days old, and used to create stem cell “lines” — groups of cells that can be grown indefinitely in the laboratory.

Stice, of the University of Georgia, said he has not needed to obtain new cells from embryos since 2001. His work relies on cell lines that have been maintained for research in a lab setting, something he thinks is not widely understood.

Charles Craig, president of Georgia Bio, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of the state’s biotech researchers and companies, said his group understands that the issue is controversial. “It’s a good thing that this issue is debated and is out in the open,” he said.

Georgia Bio argues that the state should not restrict the research any more than the federal government does.

“When you think about the 21st century, you think about biomedical innovation and that will be one of the main drivers of economic development in many states,” he said.

An economic force

Georgia’s “life sciences industry,” which includes all the major players using biotechnology, in 2007 accounted for more than 15,000 private-sector jobs, most of them high-wage positions.

For two decades, the Georgia Research Alliance has leveraged state money to bring world-renowned scientists to Georgia. “Our core mission is about building capacity for our universities to participate in cutting-edge research,” said C. Michael Cassidy, president of the alliance.

The Geron trial helps put Georgia in the forefront of the possibilities of scientific research, Cassidy said.

“This work represents hope for many, many people that are suffering and that’s what we need to be thinking about,” he said. “But it’s significant that it’s happening here.”

More online: Read more AJC reporting on this topic at ajc.com

Contact AJC reporters Bill Torpy at btorpy@ajc.com, Helena Oliviero at holiviero@ajc.com and Carrie Teegardin at cteegardin@ajc.com.

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