Stem cell research has proven to be a regenerative approach to healing wounds and other illnesses, a new alternative to the traditional approaches of treatment for patients.
“Stem cells can really help that regenerative process. The basic idea is that stem cells devise new cells that will be used to regenerate either an entire organ or tissue,” said Dr. John McCarrey, professor of cellular molecular biology at UTSA.
The benefits of stem cell research include regenerating tissue that is damaged by injury, heart disease, diabetes and neural diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. “The hope is that the treatment used for these problems will be bio stem cell-based approaches,” McCarrey said.
Stem cell research has continued to expand, and there is an exceptional group of researchers working closely with McCarrey. “The excitement about stem cells is that this will give a completely different approach to medicine. Instead of going in and taking something out, or instead of just throwing in some chemicals, we will actually put in new cells, whole cells – in the hope that those cells will function where there has been a problem either due to a disease or an injury,” McCarrey said.
The controversy surrounding stem cell research began in the late 90’s when a method to derive stem cells from human embryos emerged. However, recent studies, reported by the National Institute of Health, found that another way to produce stem cells has been discovered; the new type of stem cell – an “induced pluripotent adult cell that could assume a stem cell-like state” is now used for research.
“What we need to do first is make sure that all the methods (of stem cell research) are completely optimized ethically and for their (a patient’s) safety,” McCarrey said.
He went on to say, “Major studies are being conducted at the Southwest National Primate Center, located at The Texas Medical Research Institute of San Antonio, to use the baboon as a model system for some of the ways to use stem cells for therapeutic applications.”
“The nonhuman primate is closely related to humans, but we can still test the different methods and figure out which ones work. Others can make the move into the human clinical trials.”
“A baboon’s genome is about 92 percent similar to that of a human. Obviously, their anatomy is similar, their physiology is similar, their immune system is similar, so it’s a very relevant model system that essentially recapitulates much of the human situation and with the most accurate information about how methods work out in baboons and how these methods can be transferred to use in humans,” McCarrey explained.
Two major sources of funding for stem cell research at UTSA are, The Kleberg Foundation and The National Institutes of Health. “It’s at about 1.5 million dollars that’s been put into the program,” McCarrey said.
UTSA’s research group includes, Dr. McCarrey, Dr. Richard Le Baron, associate professor in the biology department; Dr. Chris Navara, associate professor. Some recently hired faculty members are, Dr. Brian Hermann and Dr. Annie Lin.
“We each have an interest in stem cell research and we each bring a different background to the table, which is good because we want to have a complimentary set of interests and expertise,” McCarrey said.
“There’s a lot of hope to use stem cells in a lot of ways. When you think about the approach we take with medicine these days, you can really kind of narrow it down to two approaches. One is surgery, the other is a whole variety of different kinds of treatments with various types of chemicals,” McCarrey said. “Stem cell research offers a different approach to medicine. In terms of what type of applications stem cells can be used on – the sky’s the limit.”