Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Prof’s research might help daughter, public

Feinberg School of Medicine neurology Prof. John A. Kessler believes he will someday see his daughter walk again.

Four and a half years ago, Kessler’s daughter, Allison, suffered a spinal cord injury that landed her in the wheelchair she now uses to navigate Harvard University’s campus. Since then, Kessler has been working on solutions to spinal cord injury through the use of stem cell research.

His research efforts are now being aided by a $3.6 million, four-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, a division of the U.S. Department of Health, that on October 3, 2005 named Northwestern one of two Centers of Excellence in Translational Human Stem Cell research in the country.

Kessler and his team are pioneering the use of mice to test the effect of human embryonic stem cells on spinal cord injuries. Like many lab experiments, the treatment must be proven effective in thousands of trials on mice before being tested on humans. Current federal regulations prohibit the use of stem cell lines, the key ingredient of stem cells, created after Aug. 9, 2001. This might limit Kessler’s ability to move his experiment into humans when they are ready.

Kessler and his team have been working on the basic biology of stem cells for several years, well before receiving the grant money. Kessler believes the strength of the science and interdisciplinary approaches attracted the NIH’s money.

James F. Battey Jr., chairman of the federal NIH Stem Cell Task Force, said NU’s grant proposal was accepted because of its unique approach combining biomaterials with human embryonic stem cells.

The money will fund use of embryonic stem cells to investigate cures for diabetes and stroke. Molecular biology Prof. Thomas Meade is working on a project that uses Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI, technology to track the progress of embryonic stem cells after they have been transplanted into the body. The most groundbreaking research the federal grant will support involves the use of embryonic stem cells to create regenerative fibers in injured spinal cords.

“The studies were novel; the studies were important and they addressed an important clinical problem,” Battey said of Kessler’s work with stem cells and spinal cords.

His lab conducts experiments on mice 20 times a week, injuring the spinal cords of the mice and then injecting a treatment that contains embryonic stem cells.

The injured mice function much like humans with spinal cord injuries; incapacitated from about the abdomen down, the mice struggle to move with only their front legs. The treated mice can walk using both legs. Kessler and his team said this treatment could someday work to cure human spinal cord injuries.

“I see this beginning to get to humans in just a couple of years,” Kessler said.

The treatment works by fusing human embryonic stem cells into a gel. The gel consists of artificially created material composed of peptides, a combination of small protein-like amino acids, developed by chemistry and material sciences and engineering Prof. Samuel Stupp, that forms a gel-like substance when in contact with fluid naturally found between cells.

When the embryonic stem cells are fused into this gel, the chemical reaction sends signals to the brain to allow regenerative fibers to grow. The embryonic stem cells used are left over from in vitro fertilization banks. The embryos would most likely be discarded if they were not used for stem cell research, Kessler said.

Since the NIH is part of the U.S. Department of Health, Kessler and his team would not be able to proceed, using the grant money, with incorporating their work into humans. The stem cell line needed to make implanting the treatment safe in humans is not yet approved.

Four years ago, President Bush prohibited the use of federal money to work with cell lines that were created after Aug. 9, 2001.

Laurie Zoloth, director of the Center for Bioethics, Science and Society at NU, said that Republicans and Democrats in Congress have come to agree on the need to re-think the compromise made by President Bush in 2001.

“There’s been a lot of new research and a lot of new lines,” Zoloth said of the progress in the field since 2001. “It’s going to be an ongoing puzzle to develop the kind of biological material that would be safe to put in human spines and still be part of the NIH guidelines.”

The work, Zoloth said, has significant social and economic impact.

“Spinal cord injury and neurological repair affect all age groups and socioeconomic classes,” she said.

Zoloth said Kessler’s research could help everyone affected by debilitating spinal cord injuries.

Reach Amanda Palleschi at [email protected].

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Prof’s research might help daughter, public