NEW YORK -- Weill Cornell Medical College has established the Ansary Center for Stem Cell Therapeutics with a $15 million grant from Shahla and Hushang Ansary, prominent Houston philanthropists.
Shahla Ansary, who is a vice chairman of the college's board of overseers, is a former Iranian finance and economics minister, Iranian ambassador to the United States and chief executive of the National Iranian Oil Co. Currently he is chairman of Parman Capital Group, a privately held global investment firm.
The new research center will bring together a leading team of scientists to focus on stem cells, the primitive, unspecialized cells thought to have an unrivaled capacity to form all types of cells in the body. It will function in accordance with federal regulations, which allow federal funds to be used only for research on existing human embryonic stem cells lines. There are no such prohibitions on the use of adult stem cells.
"The Ansary Center will help lead the way into 21st century medicine in this extremely promising area," said Dr. Antonio M. Gotto Jr., the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell. He noted that Weill Cornell scientists and physicians already are world leaders in stem cell research. Dr. Shahin Rafii, a noted authority in the field and the recently named Arthur Belfer Professor of Genetic Medicine at Weill Cornell, will direct the center.
"We are witnessing the birth of a new field of research that has tremendous potential for relieving human suffering," said Hushang Ansary. It's an exciting time, and we believe this prestigious center will have a significant impact in the field."
Added Dr. David P. Hajjar, executive vice dean for research at Weill Cornell, "This center will help position Weill Cornell at the vanguard of stem cell and developmental biology research in this country."
Stem cells are immature cells that can differentiate into all types of cells in the body, from heartbeat-generating cardiac cells to insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Embryonic stems cells, or those that exist in the ball of cells that forms shortly after sperm and egg meet, are thought to have enormous potential when it comes to developing into different types of cells. Adult stem cells -- which can be found in umbilical cord blood, bone marrow, blood and other parts of the body -- have tremendous potential as well.
The Ansary Center will take a synergistic approach to stem cell research and bring together scientists from different areas of biomedical research to solve complex problems. The researchers hope to discover the wellspring of adult stem cells in the body and ways to manipulate stem cells to treat human illness. In particular, the researchers hope to understand the regulation of cells that give rise to blood vessels, to insulin-producing cells in the pancreas (which are damaged in diabetics), and to neurons of the brain and nervous system.
"Stem cells have long been known to reside in the blood and bone marrow and are responsible for churning out the massive number of red blood cells and infection-fighting white blood cells the body needs," said Rafii, who also is professor of medicine in the Division of Hematology-Oncology at Weill Cornell. "Now scientists are starting to find organ-specific stem cells nearly everywhere, which opens up novel strategies to regenerate adult organs."
Rafii has made a number of advances in stem cell research, including the discovery of vascular stem cells that are present in the adult bone marrow and can contribute to wound healing and tumor revascularization. In addition, his group has found that stem cells in bone marrow must move from one location to another before they can mature and begin regenerating new cells. He and his team also identified the growth factors that facilitate this movement, which could help cancer patients recovering from the severe blood- and immune-suppressing effects of chemotherapy.
In other innovative research on stem cells at Weill Cornell, Dr. Neeta Roy, assistant professor of neuroscience, recently isolated neural progenitor cells from fetal spinal cord tissue, which could one day be used to treat damaged nerves and brain tissue.
Ansary Center researchers particularly hope to find ways to boost the growth of adult stem cells. For example, for decades it was nearly etched in stone that certain organs -- including the brain, heart, and ovaries -- had a finite number of cells. It was thought these organs had no way of generating new cells that had been damaged or used up. In recent years, tantalizing new evidence has suggested that hibernating stem cells could be lurking inside these and other organs.
"If we can find a way to stimulate these cells, either in the laboratory or in the body, we could deliver large amounts of a patient's own stem cells as a treatment," said Rafii. "Such cells could be used to enhance brain recovery after stroke, accelerate wound healing in diabetics and regenerate heart muscle after a heart attack."