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Body's basic building blocks

Published February 3, 2007


Gov. Charlie Crist chose the Center for Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair at the University of South Florida this week to make his first major announcement about stem cell research.

Stem cell research is cutting-edge science at USF and around the country because there is still so much researchers don't know about how the body grows and heals.

Dr. Paul Sanberg, the center's director, discussed its work and the governor's proposal to spend $20-million on stem cell research with St. Petersburg Times staff writer Curtis Krueger:

What is a stem cell?

To me a stem cell is kind of the basic building block of the body. ... It's really the basic building block cells of the body and of organs.

Why does that make stem cells so important?

We start out with a fertilized egg with a sperm, and then all of a sudden we end up with a body of all sorts of different kinds of things. ... If we can understand the biology of the stem cell, how it works, we can then help repair and regenerate different tissues and organs.

Stem cells from bone marrow - you demonstrated that they could essentially be turned into brain (cells?)

They could be transformed into neuronal cells ... brain-type cells. Since then a number of people have worked on bone marrow cells for brain diseases. It's a hot area.

You also have shown that stem cells from the umbilical cord blood can also be transformed ...

Into neural cells. And when we put those into animal models of stroke ... we find recovery of function and the brains have less damage to them.

The body is such a complex engine, why can't it produce the stem cells on its own?

Well, it does. ... During disease there are stem cells that are recruited. But like everything our pools of these cells are limited.

So this is basically giving the tissue of the body more of that raw material that it would normally use on its own to sort of rebuild?


You've talked about regeneration and repair. What's being regenerated?

What's being regenerated is the tissue. So if it's a brain injury, for example following a stroke, we see regrowth of neural tissue. If it's heart, following a heart attack, you would see regrowth of heart muscle.

If there's scar tissue on the heart or if there's damage to the brain, I tend to think that's just the way it is, it doesn't get better. So that's not true, I guess?

That's not true. In fact we have these mechanisms going on all the time. ... Bone regrows, a lot of our body will repair itself. And given time the brain will repair itself over time following certain injuries. What we have to understand is what are the mechanisms. And it's likely that a lot of the mechanisms are related to stem cells.

So Gov. Crist's announcement, what is the significance of that?

I think it's a great first step. ... It's a wonderful thing that he's sponsoring and as the ethical issues sort themselves out there could be next steps.

How far off do you think it would be before some of the work you are doing could translate to in-the-clinic treatment for a patient who has a brain injury?

If we had the funding we could do it in a couple of years.

In this debate, have sometimes people overstated where we stand with stem cell research?

Yes. Clearly there's a lot of hope for stem cell research, but it's still very early in its technology. We need to understand how that technology works and how we're going to translate that into actually treating people.

[Last modified February 3, 2007, 00:12:57]

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