'U' researchers create Michigan's first human embryonic stem cell line

By Stephanie Steinberg, Daily News Editor
Published October 1, 2010

After spending months and long hours in University laboratories, University researchers announced yesterday that they have successfully created Michigan’s first human embryonic stem cell line.

Five researchers in the University’s Consortium for Stem Cell Therapies began working on the stem cell line, referred to as UM4-6, in March. The line — completed last month — was developed from donated embryos and will be used to study how embryonic stem cells grow.

Human embryonic stem cell lines are used by researchers throughout the country to study human development and potential treatments for fatal diseases and debilitating injuries. Few universities and institutions have successfully generated lines for research purposes.

In a press release issued yesterday, University President Mary Sue Coleman praised the researchers’ work and relentless effort to find cures for diseases.

“This historic achievement opens the door on a new era for U-M researchers, one that holds enormous promise for the treatment of many seriously debilitating and life-threatening diseases,” Coleman wrote. “This accomplishment will enable the University of Michigan to take its place among the world’s leaders in every aspect of stem cell research.”

Sean Morrison, director of the University’s Center for Stem Cell Biology, wrote in an e-mail interview that University scientists are “starting to deliver” on the human embryonic research Michigan voters approved in a 2008 ballot initiative.

“This is just the beginning, we have big plans,” Morrison wrote.

Gary Smith, co-director of the Consortium for Stem Cell Therapies and professor of obstetrics and gynecology, said in an interview the stem cell line will be used for “basic work” like understanding how different culture conditions impact the derivation of human embryonic stem cells.

“This line in itself is what we could consider a normal embryonic stem cell line so it does not have any genetic abnormalities,” Smith said.

In the future, researchers hope to create lines that contain genetic defects, which can be used to study specific diseases such as Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease.

“There are very few, if any, disease specific lines on the registry,” Smith said.

The National Institutes of Health registry currently contains 75 human embryonic stem cell lines. Once University researchers generate enough cells for distribution, they plan to submit an application to the NIH and offer the line — which would become number 76 — for the registry.

Since U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth blocked federal funding for embryonic stem cell research in August, researchers have been concerned that scientists will not be able to use the line if the ruling remains in place. Smith said the field is “in a bit of turmoil,” and he hopes the U.S. Court of Appeals will overturn the decision so University researchers can carry on with their work.

“The responsible thing to do for us is to actually make these lines compatible with being on the registry and then let the politics make its way out,” he said.

Sue O’Shea, co-director of the Consortium for Stem Cell Therapies and a professor of cell and developmental biology, said in an interview the plan is to make the line available on the registry so researchers at the University and other institutions can use it.

“Otherwise, there is not much point in making the cell line,” O’Shea said.

While University researchers now know what it takes to produce a human embryonic stem cell line, Smith said all future lines are “going to take time.”

“The kind of the interesting thing here is that not many people have done this,” he said. “As you do it, you realize you can’t really speed up the process.”

However, Smith said the goal is to work on multiple lines at the same time so that more than one can be generated every few months.

“Hopefully, as we ramp up here, we’ll be able to do a few lines at a time and have them overlapping,” he said.

According to the press release, the stem cell line was derived from a five-day-old embryo about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. A patient who no longer needed the embryo for reproductive purposes donated it to the University.

In November 2008, Michigan voters passed a ballot initiative called Proposal 2 that allows women to donate unwanted embryos for research. Before the proposal, fertility clinics were forced to throw them away.

Since January, four couples have donated approximately 20 embryos to the University, and Smith said many people have contacted him about donating.

“At least once a week we have interactions with somebody who’s wanting to donate embryos,” he said.

Besides generating a new stem cell line, researchers are making induced pluripotent stem cells — a technique that involves reprogramming adult body cells to have therapeutic capabilities similar to embryonic stem cells. Pluripotent cells are deemed less controversial because they can be derived from a patient’s own cells.

O’Shea said researchers will be able to use pluripotent cells to study disease progression and look at factors that interfere with disease growth.

“It has real potential (to be used) in drug development for diseases that develop over time,” she said.

After years of stem cell research restrictions, Smith said it’s “been a long road” in getting to this point.

“Even before Proposal 2 passed, this is something that many of us talked about and looked toward the future for,” he said. “When we got our first embryo, when we got our approval, when we got the first lines growing, when we found out that they were genetically normal — all of these little steps have been exciting and rewarding.”