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New stem cell facility to be available to scientists statewide

Kate O'Connell/Innovation Trail

A new facility in upstate New York is being touted as the ‘bridge’ from research to stem cell therapies that could potentially cure conditions like cancer, Alzheimer’s, and spinal damage.

Housed at the University of Rochester, it’s the first facility of this magnitude in the region, and is available to academic and private-sector scientists from across the state.  

The Upstate Stem Cell cGMP (current good manufacturing practice) facility is built to meet strict federal guidelines that will allow scientists to produce cells suitable for human trials.

There are more than 40 labs at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) that are working with stem cells, and collectively they have more than $80 million in research funding.

Chris Proschel is in the department for biomedical genetics at URMC and will be working in the new facility on ways to repair damage to the central nervous system.

“In a patient with spinal cord injury, there is not just disruption of the neuronal tract that carries information along the spine, but there’s also disruption of the entire environment, so there’s a lot of damage to the tissue,” Proschel says.

Stem cells would promote repair

“The approach that we’re taking is that we would come in and transplant these cells, and these cells would start changing the environment and promoting repair.

“They’re really like small robots that have been transplanted to help repair the [damaged] environment,” says Proschel.

For those who have become paraplegic or quadriplegic due to spinal cord damage, Proschel says getting patients to walk again is a tall order, and not one they are sure they can achieve with stem cells yet.

But, he says they could reduce pain, help people re-gain control of their bladder, and promote other healing that would dramatically improve quality of life.

“The recovery has been phenomenal in animals and we’re hoping to see the same in patients,” he said.

The controversy surrounding stem cell research:

Proschel says stem cell research is important because the areas being researched do not currently have effective treatments.

He says cell therapy in general, is the next frontier in medicine.

However, this kind of research has become contentious, with many Americans strongly against the use of human cells.

The upstate facility is not currently planning on using the most controversial kind of stem cells that come from human embryos, despite the lifting of Bush-era prohibitions on the use of embryonic stem cells.

Most of the work at the new facility will involve adult stem cells, or tissue-specific stem cells.

Human trials becoming possible

The director of the University of Rochester’s Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Institute, Mark Noble, says human trials in this field are quickly becoming possible, and there are many benefits to this kind of research.

“The United States spends 400 to 500 billion dollars a year on many chronic diseases that are the frontline target of stem cell research. If we just reduce those costs by 10 percent, we have saved more money that we spend per year for the entire National Institutes of Health. So if we want to have an economic impact, this is how you do it,” Noble says.

“Secondly, stem cell medicine truly is the next great medical revolution, this is going to change our treatment of conditions and afflictions where we don’t know what to do,” he said.

Noble says clinical trials could be launched from the facility within the next three years for conditions like spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, eye disease, and fracture repair.

The 3,600 square foot facility houses three labs and was created with $3.5 million in funding from the Empire State Stem Cell Board.

University officials say the new facility will accelerate research across the state, and allow scientists in the region to move forward with research that would otherwise be taken to another facility.

WXXI/Finger Lakes Reporter for the Innovation Trail