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Cells may be 'bred' to fix diseases, disorders (9/29/97)

Imagine a bank of cells in a research laboratory. Row after row, containers are labeled: "Cell A corrects spinal cord injury," "Cell B fixes Parkinson's disease," "Cell C alleviates Alzheimer's" and "Cell D corrects hearing." The rows go on and on, covering virtually every human disease and disorder.

Sound far out? Yes, but such a bank is under construction by researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

A group of cells called 'stem cells' is the focus of study, said Mary Pat Moyer, PhD, professor of surgery at the Health Science Center, who heads a research team looking at neural stem cells in collaboration with scientists from the UT Medical Branch at Galveston and UT Austin. Neural stem cells are the immature, or precursor, form of brain cells and nervous system cells.

"Stem cells are so fascinating. If you put them into one kind of cellular 'soil' they grow into one kind of cell, and if you put them into another soil, they grow into another kind," Dr. Moyer said. "They can be bred for specific purposes."

In scientific terms, stem cells are "generalized" cells that have not yet "differentiated"--they have not yet changed into cells that perform a particular function in the body.

Dr. Moyer and her colleagues hope their studies of neural stem cells will one day enable surgeons to "fill in the neural blanks''of patients who have suffered spinal cord injury or brain damage, or who live with Parkinson's disease or a host of other neural diseases and disorders.

Neural stem cells are the beginning cells from which all functional neural cells in the body develop. Many other different kinds of stem cells are found throughout the body; other types are found in the liver or in bone marrow, for example, and Dr. Moyer has similar stem cell work in progress with those sites.

"We want to categorize bunches of cells, test them for safety and preserve them," Dr. Moyer said. "It is a similar concept to blood banking. When a certain type of cell is needed, it will be available for use--sort of like an auto parts repair shop for the human body."

Dr. Moyer will give an invited presentation on this exciting research Sept. 22 at the Cell and Tissue Bioprocessing Conference in Kansas City. The work is funded by InCell Corp. of San Antonio and the Center for Human Cell Biotechnology at the Health Science Center.

Study collaborators include Claire Hulsebosch, PhD, and Edward Zompa, PhD, from the UT Medical Branch and Tim Schallert, PhD, from UT Austin.

Contact: Will Sansom (210) 567-2570