Stem cell research successes draw national attention

Matt Paolelli and Matt Paolelli

While pundits and politicians have struggled in recent years to decide what kind of stem cell research is appropriate, researchers at Northwestern have pushed forward — yielding biological breakthroughs and boosting NU’s reputation as a medical research institution.

“We pioneered the use of stem cells to treat autoimmune diseases,” said Dr. Richard Burt, chief of the immunotherapy division at the Feinberg School of Medicine. “What we have done here is developed a whole new field for the use of stem cells in autoimmune disorders and we’re the world leader in it.”

As the first institution in the country to perform stem cell transplants for multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases, NU has gained recognition in the medical community.

“This has resulted in the referral of patients from around the world and National Institutes of Health funding to accelerate this area of study,” Burt said.

Dr. John Kessler, chairman of the neurology department at Feinberg, said although some researchers use rodent stem cells, his research uses human embryonic stem cells to regenerate damaged nervous systems and treat people who have become paralyzed through injuries.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research say embryos represent the first stage of human life and therefore should not be used for scientific purposes. Nearly two years ago, President George W. Bush granted funding for limited embryonic stem cell research, fueling an ethical controversy that continues to be debated in state legislatures.

“Illinois has recently been talking about enacting legislation that’s actually quite friendly to stem cell researchers,” Kessler said. “The lawmakers here have been wise enough to propose what I would consider very advanced legislation.”

The Stem Cell Research Act passed in the Illinois House of Representatives earlier this year and will be considered by the Senate in December 2003. The bill permits “research involving the derivation and use of human embryonic stem cells, human embryonic germ cells and human adult stem cells from any source.”

Kessler said such nonrestrictive policies are essential to the advancement of stem cell research and medical knowledge as a whole.

“Stem cell research at NU and nationally is going to be an ever-expanding enterprise,” he said. “Once people understand the potential, there will be even further expansion of work in this area. It’s really a major part of the future of medicine.”

NU’s work in the area of stem cell research has attracted the attention of others as well. Children’s Memorial Hospital, which serves as NU’s center for pediatric research, recently named Dr. Mary J.C. Hendrix as head of Children’s Memorial Institute for Education and Research. Hendrix currently serves as head of the department of anatomy and cell biology at the University of Iowa, but is slated to join NU in January.

A June 23 article in the Des Moines Register indicated Hendrix might be leaving Iowa because of a law limiting embryonic stem cell research. Illinois law does not have such limits.

Hendrix declined to comment until she arrives at NU in January.

“We were very fortunate to find somebody who already has exercised national leadership, has a lot of energy, a great vision and is admired and has been successful virtually everywhere,” said Kirk Johnson, board chairman of Children’s Memorial Institute of Education and Research and a member of the search team that appointed Hendrix.