U researchers now free to work with stem cells

By Drew Thompson, Staff Writer

Charles Murtaugh has always been interested in how things work, and now that the ban on human embryonic stem cell research has been lifted, he can finally satisfy his curiosity.

“I’m not surprised, but grateful,” said Murtaugh, a professor of human genetics at the U, in response to the new freedom allotted to biological research.

Stem cell research already plays an important role in Murtaugh’s lab, but the kind of stem cells that are now available for use changes everything.

The bulk of Murtaugh’s research revolves around the pancreas, best known for its production of insulin, an important component of metabolism and the lack of which leads to diabetes.

His efforts have focused on finding adult stem cells in the pancreas, the existence and exploitation of which could lead to a cure for diabetes.

“All evidence to date shows that there are no stem cells in the adult pancreas,” Murtaugh said.

Now Murtaugh can research whether or not embryonic stem cells can help overcome this roadblock.

“Our goal is to be able to generate cells to be transplanted into patients,” Murtaugh said. Instead of looking for stem cells in the pancreas, manipulated embryonic stem cells can be transformed into pancreatic cells and transplanted into the patient.

It sounds simple enough, but researchers have a lot of hurdles ahead of them.

“They can become any kind of cell, but the question is how do we make them the cell type we are interested in?” Murtaugh said. “It’s a struggle between the infinite capacity of becoming any cell and controlling them to go down a specific pathway.”

The path might be wrought with challenges, but “we are only scratching the surface of what can be done,” Murtaugh said.

Although he is passionate about his research, Murtaugh is not blind to the controversy of working with embryonic stem cells.

“I have argued with people, but I haven’t convinced them and they haven’t convinced me (that the research is wrong),” he said.

Stem cells can also be produced from reverting regular cells back to stem cells, but the process risks the patient developing cancer.

Reprogramming a cell requires altering its DNA, and there is “no way of doing it without potentially damaging the cell,” Murtaugh said. Such damage is usually of no consequence to cell function, but it increases the probability of the cell becoming cancerous.

But research of reprogrammed stem cells still has vast importance, he said. Reprogrammed cell tissue derived from the body would benefit patients more than cells from donor embryos because they are the body’s own cells, Murtaugh said.

“Research into the two must go together. Reprogrammed cells will be used in the end,” but understanding the basic science requires using embryonic stem cells, he said.

The potential for creating transplantable tissue is great, but Murtaugh said using stem cells as a platform for testing disease-curing drugs excites him even more.

Linda Kelley, director of the Hematopoietic Stem Cell Lab at the School of Medicine, said the future for embryonic stem cell research at the U looks bright.

Kelley said that removing the stem cell research ban is “overwhelmingly seen as a positive” among U researchers, and that she hopes it will continue to progress at a rapid rate.

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Nick Andrew

Charles Murtaugh works with in his research lab with his lab technician Jared Barrott. With the ban on embryonic stem cells lifted Murtaugh can continue his work trying to generate cells for transplants.