Symposium attracts top stem cell researchers
BRIDGEWATER — Scientists from all over the country gathered for the sixth annual New Jersey Stem Cell Research Symposium on Wednesday at the Bridgewater Marriott hotel.
Researchers presented discoveries to an audience of about 250 people, with the University contributing 42 displays on findings in fields ranging from leukemia to addiction.
The symposium was designed to help different personnel in the field meet to boost productivity, said Kathryn Drzewiecki, a University graduate student in biomedical engineering.
“It’s good to have research and industry together to help each other,” said Drzewiecki, who studied devices meant to culture stem cells. “We can tell them what they need and they can get those products to be developed.”
The University’s Center for Stem Cell Research co-sponsored the symposium.
Ron Hart, professor of cell biology and neuroscience at the University, said the University is on the forefront of stem cell research and has the largest collection of human blood cells in the world. Half a million samples are stored in the Cell and DNA Repository and are now being used to generate stem cells for research, he said.
“We turn them into neurons and begin to study mechanisms of disorders,” Hart said. “So there are several labs in Rutgers that are dealing with various diseases. That’s what makes our University special in this aspect.”
Among the projects featured at the symposium was a new machine introduced by Life Technologies, a global life-sciences company, designed to copy a genome sequence quicker and cheaper than before.
Although the machine, called the “Ion Proton Sequencer,” costs $200,000, the chip used to take tissue samples has been reduced from its current cost of $500,000 to about $1,000, said Marsha Slater, application specialist for Life Technologies.
“That’s going to create a lot of change in how medicine is done,” Slater said. “Cancer patients will be able to get their tissue samples sequenced, see what mutations are there — which will help choose the best chemotherapy for the patient.”
In addition to tissue sample projects, presenters also focused on how to extract stem cells from eggs, even if they are not fertilized, said Ann Kiessling, associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School.
Although stem cells from unfertilized eggs, called parthenote cells, can be used without any controversy, Kiessling said the Dickey-Wiker Amendment has blocked scientists from using federal funds for research.
“It seems to be that the federal government did not want to get involved in the discussion on whether women should be asked to donate eggs for research purposes,” said Kiessling, director of the Bedford Stem Cell Research Foundation.
But Kiessling said parthenote cells are not as effective as fertilized embryos.
Only 2 percent of these cells can be reprogrammed into stem cells, a stark contrast with the typical 20 to 50 percent success rate found with the use of fertilized embryos, she said.
Research has stalled because of a lack of government funding in the entire field, Hart said.
While New Jersey refuses to spend any money on stem cell research, he said scientists are finding ways to make adjustments in their work.
“The key is to reduce the cost of research,” Hart said. “That means making more stem cells with fewer cells and smaller cultures. We’re learning how to do that.”
Stem cells have been found to increase neuron production, which can potentially cure a variety of mental diseases that were once thought to be irreparable, he said.
Aniruddh Solanki, a University graduate student in the Department of Chemistry, said he developed a cheaper, toxic-free method to improve the usual solution Life Technologies uses.
“Stem cells are very sensitive,” said Solanki, who personally designed the nano RU particle that makes this possible. “You can’t do much with them or they’ll die. What we have is a unique system that doesn’t use viruses but neutralizes the cell environment.”.”