Vatican Supports Stem Cell Initiative Led By University of Maryland School of Medicine
Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine are leading a new international research initiative, funded in part by the Vatican, to explore the therapeutic potential of intestinal stem cells. The International Intestinal Stem Cell Consortium will include scientists from several institutes in Italy as well as from the University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.
The Vatican and the Istituto Superiore di Sanita, the Italian equivalent to the National Institutes of Health, announced the new partnership on April 23 at a news conference in Rome attended by University of Maryland School of Medicine officials. A followup news conference was held in Baltimore April 28.
"This new coalition brings together scientists from both sides of the Atlantic to ensure we are exploring every avenue of stem cell research in order to bring real treatments as quickly as possible to patients suffering from deadly conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and multiple sclerosis," says Alessio Fasano, MD, professor of pediatrics, medicine and physiology and director of the Mucosal Biology Research Center and the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
"All of the partners have put a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm into putting this consortium together, and we are thankful to the Vatican for making this research possible," adds Fasano, who is coordinating the consortium and who appeared at the news conference in Rome.
In addition to scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the group will include researchers from the Istituto Superiore di Sanita, the University of Salerno in Fasano's hometown of Salerno, Italy, and the Bambin Gesý in Rome, the largest children's hospital in Europe.
The Vatican funding goes directly to the foundation of the Scuola Medica Salernitana, the University of Salerno's medical school, which will distribute it to the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the rest of the consortium's partners.
Fasano says researching stem cells found in the intestines is a promising area that has been largely neglected until now.
The ideal type of stem cells for medical use, says Fasano, has unlimited pluripotency - that is, the stem cells are virtual blank slates that can become any kind of cell, from heart cells to blood cells to skin cells to intestinal cells and so on. Embryonic stem cells and the newer induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells are prized for their pluripotency, which makes them promising for use in treating a variety of health issues from heart disease and cancers.
Adult stem cells are not as pluripotent, but harvesting them from a patient's skin, muscle, bone marrow or intestine may be an important alternative, according to Fasano. "We just want to take advantage of what nature is already doing in the intestines," he says.
It is likely the first treatments that might result from the research would help patients with intestinal disorders such as celiac disease - Fasano's research specialty - an autoimmune disease with gastrointestinal symptoms.
Intestinal stem cells are highly active stem cells that support the shedding and replacing of all the cells in the intestinal lining once every four to seven days.
They are multipotent, already programmed to generate all the various kinds of cells - such as mucus cells and epithelial cells - necessary to line the 20-foot length of the intestine, a highly complex organ. Importantly, intestinal stem cells can be easily harvested using endoscopy, a simple procedure used regularly for intestinal biopsies.
As a result, patients could have their own intestinal cells harvested and used to treat bowel disease. If patients were to receive treatments using their own stem cells, there could be less risk of rejection or a reaction to the transplant, Dr. Fasano explains.
"These cells are very promising, at least on paper," he says. "To study this, though, takes multidisciplinary teams of experts in stem cell research, experts in gastrointestinal medicine, experts in molecular biology and bioengineering. We need all the pieces of the puzzle and we need to communicate freely, sharing our ideas and findings. That is what we will do with this consortium."
The group will work to answer two critical questions about intestinal stem cells. One mystery is how the cells can be kept alive and made to replicate in the laboratory. Another key question to be explored is how, once the cells are healthy and flourishing, scientists can induce them to transform into different types of cells.
If the laboratory research goes well, the consortium could move on to clinical research, testing intestinal stem cell treatments in patients.
"I am confident that this partnership will facilitate new discoveries about intestinal stem cells that also will lead us to a better understanding of all types of stem cells, their function and potential to treat disease," says Curt Civin, MD, professor of pediatrics, director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine and associate dean for Research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Civin, who also attended the news conference in Rome, says, "The University of Maryland Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine is dedicated to pursuing every promising avenue of stem cell science using multidisciplinary research partnerships between our faculty and the construction of core facilities to support all types of stem cell research. We hope this new funding will help us reach our goals."
"This international initiative is yet another example of the global footprint of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, which works in 23 countries around the world," says E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, acting president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore and John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor and dean, University of Maryland School of Medicine. "It builds on our existing education and research partnership with the University of Salerno. We're delighted to have this opportunity to work more extensively with our Italian colleagues to advance science and medicine worldwide."