At Rutgers’ Stem Cell Research Center scientists are exploring the mysteries of human embryonic stem cells and their potential use in treating diseases, repairing damaged organs, and drug development. Center staff also offer a course in proper lab techniques in working with stem cells. The center was established with a grant to Professors Martin Grumet and Wise Young from the State of New Jersey through its Commission on Science and Technology.
The center focuses on human embryonic stem cells, known as hESCs, because they are pluripotent, meaning they have the unique ability to develop into any kind of cell in the body — whether it is a heart cell or a brain cell or a liver cell.
Among the accomplishments of the Rutgers Stem Cell Research Center (RSCRC) is a series of recently published papers, one of which is by Professor Rick Cohen and his colleagues, describing the derivation of New Jersey’s first hESC lines.
A stem cell line is a family of constantly dividing cells, the product of a single parent stem cell. The new lines are particularly important. Many of the cell lines previously approved by the federal government were found to have been contaminated with non-human proteins that compromise their potential therapeutic use in human subjects.
The paper also describes how the team developed a series of tests to determine the quality of these new cell lines. This quality control approach is critical to ensure that the cells are suitable for laboratory use and potential clinical applications. For example, among the panel of 11 assays is a test to make certain cells are still completely pluripotent.
Another test included in the paper ensures that the cells are not contaminated with common human viruses. These might include HIV, the virus that causes AIDS; the herpes simplex virus, which causes cold sores; and the human papilloma virus, now believed to be a leading cause of cervical cancer in adult women.
Research Associate Jennifer Moore, the lead author on the paper, noted that the cells’ chromosome complement is also tested for abnormality. Human cells normally have 23 chromosomes, but mutations in hESCs are known to appear as duplications of chromosomes 12 and 17. “This doesn’t happen often but it is not a rare event,” Moore said. “Duplications could affect stem cell functions potentially precluding their clinical use.”
The RSCRC is also active in training new stem cell scientists through the Stem Cell Training Course developed by Cohen. It consists of one week of intensive instruction and workshops from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and covers the growth, maintenance, and differentiation of human embryonic stem cells. Almost everything one needs to grow human embryonic stem cells is included in the course, which has run eight times and has trained more than 100 scientists. Attendees have included researchers from all over the world from universities, including Rutgers, and the pharmaceutical industry. The value and importance of the training program has been recognized by an invitation from a scientific publishing company to Cohen to prepare a book based on the course.
The research described by Cohen and his associates and the training courses were supported by additional grants from the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology. The state-supported research also helped build the capacity and credibility of the center, setting the stage for its researchers to win new federal grants. Professors Ron Hart and Grumet have already won major federal grants from the National Institutes of Health.
Sharing staff with its neighbor, the W.M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience, about 30 individuals at any given time are working in the RSCRC.