April 23, 2004
Contact: Joe Wrinn

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More stories about stem cells

Harvard Alumni Association videoconference on stem cells, “Unlocking the promise of stem cells”

Seven Harvard schools, seven Harvard-affiliated teaching hospitals, and close to 100 researchers and scientists are banding together in an ambitious new institute with a simple goal: to explore the promising area of stem cell research.

The Harvard Stem Cell Institute holds its inaugural symposia today comprised of a day-long series of presentations for the Harvard community that will explore topics ranging from the science to the ethics to the business of stem cell research.

“The Harvard Stem Cell Institute is an important effort to help unlock one of the fundamental mysteries of life, and could lead to important new medical treatments,” said Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers.

Stem cells, with their ability to develop into specialized tissue cells, have excited researchers with their promise to help correct maladies within the body. By understanding how they work, researchers hope they can learn to develop nerve, blood, heart, and other kinds of cells to be used to treat a wide spectrum of diseases.

Organizers of the effort hope that the Institute’s stimulating effect will extend beyond Harvard, as new techniques, tools, and knowledge foster research in other locations. The Institute’s co-director, Douglas Melton, has already taken the first steps in that direction. He announced in March that he had developed 17 new embryonic stem cell lines with private funding and that he would share those cells freely with other investigators.

In its initial phase, the Institute will be a “virtual” center, supporting research and drawing scientists together who work in laboratories at the affiliated institutions around Boston and Cambridge. Researchers will develop core laboratory facilities and needed technology to perform functions such as cell sorting, imaging of stem cells in their natural environments, and the transfer of nuclei between cells. The institute will also seek to create a community among researchers through frequent informal gatherings focused on a particular scientific problem, through monthly seminars with outside experts, and through annual symposia, such as today’s.

Within a few years, Harvard hopes to add a central physical location for the institute, complete with laboratory facilities, but does not have specific plans at this point in time. Though some researchers would continue to work in their own labs at different locations, the physical closeness enabled by a central lab facility should allow informal meetings and foster an environment that will lead to new ideas and lines of inquiry.

In overseeing the work of the Institute, the Harvard Stem Cell Research Committee is charged with reviewing proposals by Harvard scientists – including those at the new institute – to work on human embryonic stem cells that do not qualify for federal funding.

The committee is made up of faculty from several schools, including the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Medical School, the Harvard School of Public Health, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government. It is advisory to the provost.

“Some of Harvard’s most distinguished scientists serve on the Harvard Stem Cell Research Committee in order to provide a rigorous review of the ethics surrounding human embryonic stem cell research,” said Harvard Provost Steven Hyman. “The committee’s review and recommendations ensure that human embryonic stem cell research at Harvard is conducted according to the highest ethical standards.”


Background materials on the science, ethics and funding of stem cell research can be found at http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2004/04.22/99-StemOver.html. There also are multi-media presentations on the science and importance of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

The Diseases:

The Harvard Stem Cell Institute is focused on five disease types for which stem cell therapy seems most promising. The diseases all result from some sort of organ or tissue failure and include:

    • diabetes, in which insulin producing cells in the pancreas are destroyed, impairing the body’s ability to metabolize sugar;
    • neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, which destroys neurons in the brain;
    • blood diseases, including leukemia where abnormal blood cells are produced, and immune system diseases such as AIDS;
    • cardiovascular disease, where heart muscle tissue is destroyed during heart attacks;
    • musculoskeletal diseases, such as muscular dystrophy.

The Details to Date:

  • Educational Web site: www.stemcell.harvard.edu to be launched in late spring
  • Seven Harvard-affiliated hospitals: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, The Children’s Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Joslin Diabetes Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital
  • 25 principal investigators to date, 100 researchers currently involved
  • 12 inter-lab science seminars per year