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University Receives $3.5 Million in Stem Cell Grants

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May 2, 2006

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University has received almost $3.5 million in grants from the State of Illinois that will fund three stem cell research projects.

The awards came from the Illinois Regenerative Medicine Institute (IMRI), which issues grants to medical research facilities for the development of treatments and cures from stem cell research.

An outside independent panel of experts selected a total of 10 grants for funding, based on innovative approaches and great potential outlined in stem cell research proposals.

Illinois and New Jersey are currently the only states to put public funds toward stem cell research.

IMRI grant recipients include Mary J.C. Hendrix, professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, who received $2 million for studies of human stem cells to determine their potential to reverse the progression of malignant tumors, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson's disease, brain injury and epilepsy.

Hendrix is president and scientific director of the Children's Memorial Research Center and a member of the executive committees of The Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Center for Genetic Medicine at Northwestern University.

Guillermo A. Ameer, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine, received a grant for $870,000 for studies of stem cell-based vascular tissue engineering to develop replacement blood vessels. Ameer and his collaborators believe their research may eventually eliminate the need to harvest existing blood vessels from patients with vascular disease.

Xiaozhong A. Wang, assistant professor of biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology at  the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, received $565,000 to investigate genetic control of pluripotency -- potential of a stem cell to develop into more than one type of mature cell, depending on the environment -- and differentiation in stem cells to control self-renewal and multipotency.

Multipotent stem cells can give rise to several other cell types, but those types are limited in number. An example of a multipotent stem cell is a hematopoietic, or blood, stem cell that can develop into several types of blood cells, but cannot develop into brain cells or other types of cells. At the end of the long series of cell divisions that form the embryo are cells that are terminally differentiated, or considered to be permanently committed to a specific function.

As described by the National Institutes of Health, stem cells act like an internal repair system for the body.  Stem cells can divide to replenish other cells for as long as the body is alive.  When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential to either remain a stem cell or become another type of cell, such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell or a brain cell.

Many of the most serious illnesses or birth defects are caused by problems during the transformation process.  Understanding the process better may help doctors discover how to prevent, treat or cure illnesses and conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.