The Harvard Stem Cell Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital received one of three inaugural grants from the National Institutes of Health meant to bring cell-based therapy for heart, lung, and blood diseases out of the lab and into doctors’ medical arsenal for treating patients.
The five-year grant, from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), was awarded to a team led by Professor of Medicine David Scadden, a Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researcher and co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
The project focuses on the specialized environments around stem cells. Stem cells, Scadden said, function in very particular situations. Blood stem cells, for example, operate in the bone marrow, surrounded by and interacting with bone marrow tissue. Yet when stem cells are studied, they are often taken out of the environment in which they operate.
“Stem cells are defined by how they function in a complex setting, yet we often study them in isolation,” Scadden said.
The Harvard Stem Cell Institute attracted the grant, Scadden said, because Harvard is a place where laboratory-based basic research on stem cells can move smoothly into clinical trials in Harvard’s teaching hospitals.
“This is an endorsement of the fact that our Stem Cell Institute is not just a research institute. Coming up with deliverables to make a difference for people is something we do,” Scadden said.
Scadden and his colleagues’ research seeks to influence stem cells by manipulating their environment. Their current work targets cells in the bone marrow in order to influence blood stem cells as a way to treat blood-based cancers such as lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, and multiple myloma. Clinical trials on the research have begun at several Harvard teaching hospitals and at MD Anderson in Texas.
Other researchers involved in the work include Instructor in Medicine Gregor Adams and Professor of Medicine Henry Kronenberg, both of MGH. Assistant Professor of Medicine Karen Ballen, also of MGH, is leading the clinical trials. Assistant Professor of Medicine Ernestina Schipani and Assistant Professor of Pathology Frederic Preffer have also been instrumental in the work, Scadden said.
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute is one of 27 separate institutes and centers that make up the National Institutes of Health. The $6.5 million grant program, “Specialized Centers for Blood-Based Therapy for Heart, Lung, and Blood Diseases,” involves both basic and clinical research, but is focused on clinical applications of cell-based therapy.
“Recent advances in stem cell biology and transplantation have set the stage for the next level of research emphasis: a program that emphasizes the translation of knowledge about cell-based therapy into clinical practice,” said NHLBI Director Elizabeth G. Nabel.
The program is aimed at solving challenges facing cell-based repair therapy, including repair of heart muscle, reducing immune complications from grafts, and enhancing interaction of adult stem cells and their tissue environment.
The other grants were awarded to Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.