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Mouse motor neurons

News: Southscapes Fall 2015

Research Stems from Collaboration: The Regenerative Bioscience Center marks a decade of revolutionary stem cell research

In 2004, California, Wisconsin and New Jersey were the first to allocate billions of dollars of state funds toward stem cell research. National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants for $25 million went to embryonic stem cell researchers, up from $10 million the year before. More than 200 members of Congress urged then-President George W. Bush to expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Closer to home, the Regenerative Bioscience Center (RBC), hosted by UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, was born in 2005. Steven Stice, a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and D.W. Brooks Distinguished Professor in CAES, was selected to lead the center.

“UGA already had outstanding faculty members and researchers working on stem cells,” Stice said. “What was needed was a new, internal, collaborative coalition (at the university) that could promote spontaneous interactions between researchers who might not have been natural collaborators in the past.”

Through this initial collaboration and educational focus, the RBC was awarded one of five NIH-sponsored grants to hold a biannual, five-day Human Embryonic Stem Cell (HESC) Toolbox workshop, with the goal of training scientists from around the world. By 2008, more than 100 scientists, half from Georgia institutions, had been trained in HESC culture and maintenance.

Multiple research laboratories and affiliated colleges are tied to the RBC network to facilitate interaction within multiple disciplines and research areas. More than 30 researchers make up the center, including veterinarians, toxicologists, biochemists and pharmacologists.

“What I’m seeing today is the broader reach that we have to include more cross-disciplinary involvement,” Stice said. “Through our translational approach to research, we are significantly expanding the perspective of veterinarians, scientists and even clinicians, and eradicating the practice of researching in isolation.”

The basic idea of stem cell therapy was simple: replace dying cells in a patient suffering from Parkinson’s disease, for example, and they would recover. Researchers quickly found it to be much more complex than simply isolating stem cells and providing them to patients.

“It was naïve thinking, that one could make dopamine-producing cells in the lab similar to those lost in Parkinson’s that could be injected very quickly into the brain, and that’s all we would need to do,” Stice said. “Many coordinated and complementary ‘instruments’ are needed to play the symphony of regenerative medicine using stem cells.”

This year carries great promise for stem cell research, but there is a need to increase productivity of the drug development process as far as granting approval and providing safer drugs for consumers. Today, with the addition of new faculty, the RBC has strengthened its position in both drug discovery and in the field of toxicology.

“I think there will be a real push in the future for use of stem cells, not so much as therapy, but as a delivery mechanism,” Stice said. “The problem with stem cells right now is the variations and inconsistency of results. We, as researchers, have to get more consistent results and there are a number of ways of doing just that.”

As research continues to evolve, so will the members of the RBC. “The RBC is a place for researchers to come together to share and build connections,” Stice said. “People will continually come and go as opportunities present themselves, but the collaborative bonds will remain forever.”

By Charlene Betourney

Top: Mouse motor neurons (green) and support neurons (red) from stem cells help with the study of neurons in muscles. This will lead to better treatments for spinal cord injuries and Lou Gehrig's disease. Photo by Raymond Swetenburg