Inside Rensselaer
Overview of Stem Cell Research at Rensselaer
* Overview of Stem Cell Research at Rensselaer

Stem cells. They make headlines and are the subject of morning talk show banter. They are a celebrity cause and a political hot potato. Some of the greatest minds in the world are working to uncover medical therapies using stem cells. In New York, a landmark stem cell research trust fund of $600 million was established by Governor Eliot Spitzer. But despite all the promise, hype, and controversy surrounding the microscopic cells, actual medical therapies using stem cells have not been developed. Researchers at Rensselaer are providing the technology that will help support global stem cell research and hasten medical discovery.

“Around the world stem cell research is slowed by the lack of supporting technology,” said Robert J. Linhardt, acting director of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS), where the majority of Rensselaer stem cell research takes place. “Researchers here are currently working to develop many of the critical tools and technologies that will be needed to quickly advance stem cell research.”

Provost Robert Palazzo agrees. “Our scientists and engineers are filling a vital niche in the global scientific effort to develop medical therapies using stem cells.”

Stem cells are the most basic type of cell. Often associated with a developing embryo, stem cells are young, undifferentiated cells that can also be found in the adult body. Like incoming college freshmen, stem cells have endless, untapped potential. Like most new college students, stem cells are not fully decided on what job they want to fill in the body and need various lessons in the form of genetic input before they make their final decision and take on their new role in the complex society that lies inside the human body. After being directed by a complex series of genes, the stem cells transform into mature tissue, organ, and muscle cells, supporting the development of a fetus or repairing cellular damage in the adult body. It is their seemingly endless potential that has researchers around the globe itching to use stem cell research in lifesaving medical therapies.

“If we can tap the power of stem cells and direct their efforts in the body, we can find cures for some of the most serious ailments including diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, and spinal injury,” Linhardt said. “If we can direct stem cells, we could grow new healthy tissue, even entire organs. The knowledge and funding is out there, but the technology is not, and so right now, stem cell research is going nowhere fast.”

The problem, according to Rensselaer stem cell researcher and the Merck Associate Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Ravi Kane, is that “there are millions of DNA bases and tens of thousands of genes within the human genome. In order to screen how all these different DNA sequences affect stem cell function, researchers need extremely high throughput technology.” Then, in order to develop new tissue or medical treatments, researchers need tools that help direct stem cell growth and function as they mature.

Rensselaer researchers are working to solve problems that face stem cell research:

Photo Kristin Bennett, Professor of Mathematical Sciences, uses mathematics and modeling to help control the differentiation of stem cells into bone cells and develop high throughput screening methods. Photo John Brunski, Professor of Biomedical Engineering, is working to develop better bone implants using stem cells at the interface.
Photo Jonathan Dordick, Howard P. Isermann Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, developed a device that can clone and screens million of stem cells in a single experiment. The high throughput stem cell chip screens stem cells for their response to drug components and is an important tool in developing medicines that target stem cells. Photo Ravi Kane, the Merck Associate Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, developed a tool that quickly screens gene function in millions of stem cells. His research provides valuable information on how and why stem cells transform to different types of cells. Kane’s team has also developed a biologic scaffold that can help scientists grow new organs and tissue using stem cells.
Photo Robert Linhardt, Ann and John H. Broadbent Jr. ’59 Senior Constellation Professor of Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering, is studying how the complex carbohydrates in embryonic stem cells change as the cell develops. Carbohydrates are among the most complex molecules in the natural world and store energy and form the basic structure of cells. Photo Lee Ligon, Assistant Professor of Biology, is helping to understand the niche or environment that surrounds a stem cell to help grow custom stem cells.
Photo Janet Paluh, Research Assistant Professor, is studying the complex microenvironment of hESCs to understand cues for self-renewal and differentiation. Such studies are critical for biomedical therapies and high throughput research. Dr. Paluh received training in hESCs and NSCs at WiCell and NIH courses at CHOC and Stanford. Photo George Plopper, Associate Professor of Biology, is working to control the development of human adult stem cells. His research will help doctors grow custom stem cells that can be used in medical therapies or tissue engineering.
Photo Badri Roysam, Professor of Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering, is collaborating with a large interdisciplinary team to understand the stem cell niche, which surrounds stem cells and guides their development and differentiation. He will use complex computing to simulate the environment surrounding a stem cell (the niche) as it develops. Photo Richard Siegel, Robert W. Hunt Professor of Materials Science and Director of the Rensselaer Nanotechnology Center, is studying how the nanoscale topography of human stem cells controls cell differentiation.
Photo Jan Stegemann, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, studies how the biochemical and mechanical properties of the 3-D stem cell niche can be controlled to develop new cells from adult stem cells. Photo Deanna Thompson, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, studies neural stem cells and is working to develop cures for paralyzing nerve injuries.
Photo Deepak Vashishth, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, investigates how mechanical forces affect adult stem cell differentiation and how stem cells affect bone cell development. Photo George Xu, Professor of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering and Biomedical Engineering, is working to develop more effective radiation treatment for cancers and to target cancer stem cells, which are thought to kick-start cancer in the body.
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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 1, Number 4, September 27, 2007
©2007 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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