How do unspecialized cells develop into blood, muscle and other human tissues? Thanks to a three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), researchers from Fred Hutchinson and University of Washington will soon probe the mystery of cell differentiation through the Exploratory Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research. The shared facility will enable researchers to study the basic biological properties of the 12 human embryonic stem-cell lines approved for research by the federal government. The Seattle-based exploratory center is one of three planned nationwide. First-year funding for the center is $753,000.
The goal of the grant is to help researchers learn how human embryonic stem cells-the undifferentiated cells that are created from the first few cell divisions after an egg is fertilized-retain the capacity to self-renew and to discover how the unspecialized cells respond to signals that stimulate their differentiation into the more than 200 committed cell types that make up the human body. These properties have led many scientists to believe that embryonic stem cells could be used to regenerate nerve, muscle, blood and other tissue types for the treatment of numerous diseases.
Core lab pilot studies
The exploratory center will be housed at UW under the direction of Dr. Anthony Blau, professor of medicine. Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb, an investigator in Fred Hutchinson's Clinical Research Division, will lead an advisory committee to review the center's progress and assist in planning for future grant proposals to provide long-term funding for the shared resource.
The Seattle-area grant will fund the development of a core laboratory, directed by Dr. Carol Ware, a UW research assistant professor of comparative medicine, as well as three pilot studies to characterize the stem cells.
The funding will enable the core lab to purchase the stem cells from the companies or academic institutions where they were developed and provide expertise on how to work with them, said Torok-Storb, whose own research focuses on hematopoietic stem cells, adult stem cells that have the capacity to form all types of blood and immune-system cells.
"The lab will acquire all of the federally approved stem-cell lines that are available, set about propagating the cells and making them available to investigators to use in that lab," Torok-Storb said. "The idea is to advance our knowledge of what each of these cell lines can and can't do. Carol will also help researchers design experiments and provide instruction on how to grow the cells, which is not a trivial process."
After investigators identify those cell lines that are useful for their research, they can purchase the appropriate cells to conduct studies in their own laboratories.
"We have all heard that these 12 stem-cell lines will be useful research materials," Torok-Storb said. "But a major question for anyone interested in working with these cell lines is, 'what can they do in my hands?' The core laboratory will help to address this question before individual laboratories invest their own time and money to find out."