Hopkins Bets on Stem Cells

Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore is placing a large bet that the hot field of cell therapies will pay off. The university announced Tuesday that it would use a $58.5 million gift from an anonymous donor to launch an ambitious Cell Engineering Institute. Its researchers will attempt to reprogram human cells into treatments for a range of diseases, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), diabetes, and spinal cord injuries.

One focus of the work will be on so-called pluripotent stem cells. In late 1998, Johns Hopkins researchers John Gearhart and Michael Shamblott and their colleagues reported that they had isolated so-called fetal germ cells, taken from the immature reproductive organs of aborted fetuses, that could become any cell type in the body. Since then, the team has been attempting to discover how to program the cells to become specific cell types, such as neurons. Initial results have been promising enough that the team has begun to test the cells in several animal models of disease.

But Gearhart says that fetal-derived cells--the use of which is opposed by some antiabortion groups--is only one field the new institute will explore. Teams will work on stem cells derived from adults and on basic research into the molecular signals that govern a cell's ability to take on a new fate. "We're not putting all of our eggs in one basket," Gearhart says. The institute will also include immunologists who will try to find ways to make stem cell therapies compatible with patients' immune systems. The institute's private funding will make researchers "somewhat invulnerable" to the heated debates over using government money for stem cell research (ScienceNOW, 30 January 2001), says stem cell researcher Evan Snyder of Children's Hospital in Boston.

The university has not yet named a director for the institute, which will employ 27 full-time scientists and involve 50 "associate researchers" from other departments or institutions, says Hopkins executive vice dean Elias Zerhouni. Eventually, it will take up two floors of a new basic research building, slated for completion in 2003.

Related site

Johns Hopkins press release about the new institute, with information about some of the leading researchers involved