Johns Hopkins Medicine
Office of Corporate Communications
Media Contact: Joanna Downer
410-614-5105; [email protected]

For Immediate Release: Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Note to Editors and Producers: Although the event is full, a limited number of reporters and photographers can attend. Please email the person's name, media outlet, and phone number to [email protected] to register. Cocktail attire is requested.


Four top stem cell researchers and a leading bioethicist from Johns Hopkins' Institute for Cell Engineering are speaking at "Stem Cells and the Future of Medicine" at The Breakers in Palm Beach starting at 4 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2005.

Of the main topics discussed during the recent election -- war, terrorism and stem cells -- stem cells may seem the most tractable. Primitive stem cells provide hope for replacing cells lost or damaged through injury or disease, and the Hopkins researchers are getting close to clinical applications, particularly in cardiology.

The Palm Beach event will start with world-renowned stem cell expert John Gearhart, Ph.D., and his talk "Are There Stem Cells in Your Future?" He plans to outline the potential of embryonic stem cells, which can become any type of cell in the body, and how these cells may provide an opportunity for treating or learning how to treat conditions that have proven intractable.

"Our animal studies show that various types of stem cells have promise in replacing cells damaged, lost or missing in motor neuron disease, in diabetes and in the heart," says Gearhart, whose team was the first to derive one type of the most primitive human stem cells, so-called human embryonic germ cells, from fetal tissue. "We're always learning more, and that knowledge is likely to help us develop treatments for many currently untreatable or incurable conditions."

Research with embryonic stem cells and other types of stem cells may lead directly to new therapies in the form of so-called cell-replacement therapies, which would use stem cells or cells derived from them to replace diseased cells. But Gearhart points out that the research also could provide dramatic indirect benefits by revealing how the primitive cells do what they do.

"We are learning which triggers push primitive stem cells toward different fates, which might help researchers design medicines to stimulate the body's own repair systems," adds Gearhart. "That would be incredibly valuable."

Stem cell research also could reveal new ways to treat or delay progression of conditions that occur as people age. For example, the research might one day help replace or protect dying nerves in Parkinson's disease or identify early events that might be averted in Alzheimer's disease.

Researchers in the Institute for Cell Engineering's Program in Neuroregeneration and Repair are already studying brain cells and neural stem cells from people who had epilepsy or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease) to identify what those neurons can and can't do, and what they might be doing "wrong" in disease.

"There is new hope for patients who suffer from brain disease or injury, conditions once believed to be largely untreatable," says neuroscientist Valina Dawson, Ph.D. "Advances in science and technology, including work in our labs, are allowing medical scientists the opportunity to discover new ways to repair the injured brain."

She and neurologist Ted Dawson, M.D., Ph.D., who together head the Program in Neuroregeneration and Repair, will discuss some of their laboratories' work in their talk, "Rebuilding the Brain." In studies with both embryonic and adult stem cells, the Dawsons and their colleagues are figuring out how to make sure new neurons make the right connections and how stem cells become different types of brain cells -- two pieces information critical for future clinical applications in brain disorders such as Parkinson's disease and stroke.

In addition, stem cells from the heart and from the bone marrow both show promise in repairing the heart in animals with damage similar to that caused by a heart attack in people. Cardiologist Joshua Hare, M.D., will describe his team's very successful efforts to use mesenchymal (meh-ZEN-kih-mal) stem cells from bone marrow to ease heart failure in animals.

"These cells reduce long-term heart damage in animals, improving the heart's overall function," says Hare, who is director of the Program in Cardiobiology in ICE and of the Heart Failure and Transplant Service at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Mesenchymal stem cells can naturally become fat, bone, cartilage, and muscle cells.

His promising animal studies, coupled with the time-tested nature of bone marrow, has Hare anticipating the launch of a clinical trial in early 2005 that will test whether injection of a person's own bone marrow stem cells can improve heart function in patients who have suffered a recent heart attack.

"It's not a simple matter to get stem cell-based research from the lab to the clinic," says Gearhart. "We must determine which stem cell sources are best for specific purposes. We must test the cells in appropriate animal models to make sure they do what we want and continue to do so for long periods of time. We must ensure that these cells will be safe. Accomplishing these goals will take the efforts of many investigators in many different fields."

But some of the needed efforts are off limits, which makes fulfilling the potential of stem cells less tractable than one might hope. At the Jan. 25 event, the ethics of stem cell research will be addressed by Ruth Faden, Ph.D., director of the Berman Bioethics Institute at Johns Hopkins.

"Embryonic stem cells come from leftover embryos created for in vitro fertilization, and obtaining those cells is seen by some as destroying a human life," notes Faden. "But this ethical dilemma is far from the only one."

The status of IVF embryos is, however, the foundation of President Bush's policy on stem cell research, which permits federal funding only of research using embryonic stem cell lines already in existence at 9 p.m. ET, Aug. 9, 2001. No federal funds can be used to create new embryonic stem cell lines or lines that contain specific disease-causing genetic mutations, such as those behind Alzheimer's disease. Studying such disease-specific cell lines might reveal early problems in cell activity or function that could reveal new ways to prevent or treat the resulting diseases.

"Federal research grants are by far the largest source of research funding to academic scientists and physicians," notes Gearhart, "but we can't use those funds to investigate some of the most important questions facing an aging population."

Faden has already assembled experts to consider the "next generation" of ethical issues in embryonic stem cell research, issues other than whether an unused IVF embryo is a "life." In 2003, the convened experts analyzed how to make future embryonic stem cell-based therapies available fairly, given the likely need to "match" patients as organ transplants and blood transfusions do.

"The panel members' potential solutions aren't possible under the current administration's policies," Faden says. "First and foremost, the experts agreed that no embryonic stem cells exposed to animal cells should be used clinically if the technology exists to avoid that exposure. The technology does exist now, but all the stem cell lines approved for use with federal grants were first grown on mouse cells."

The experts' favored accessibility solution, which calls for a bank of cells with particular characteristics, also runs up against the president's policy. To get the right mix of characteristics, the cell lines would have to be created.

"None of the most reasonable solutions for bringing human embryonic stem cells toward fair clinical application can happen under current federal policy using federal funds," says Faden. "So the burden is on private funding from corporations, foundations and individuals. It's a big burden."

The event was organized by Johns Hopkins Medicine.


On the Web:
Bone Marrow Stem Cells and Heart Repair:
Just Access to Embryonic Stem Cell Therapies: