The commitment is a collaborative effort involving the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) in the U.S., the Research Fund of the Swedish Diabetes Association, and the Swedish Research Council. The funding is part of a stem cell program that was instituted in 2002.
As with the previous round of applications, the projects that are being granted funding are primarily in endocrinology (diabetes) and neurology.
“It is gratifying that Sweden is able to help expand our knowledge in stem cell research and in the long term find therapeutic applications of basic research,” says Håkan Billig, Secretary General of the Scientific Council for Medicine.
• Dr. Jonas Frisèn and Dr. Stefan Jovinge from Karolinska Institute will investigate whether adult stem cells can develop into specific cells in need of replacement by using a new technology reminiscent of carbon-dating used in archaeology, thus allowing them to measure how often cells naturally turn over in the adult human pancreas, heart and brain. It will give them an idea whether it is realistic to develop pharmaceuticals that stimulate cell production from stem cells in diseases such as diabetes.
• Dr. Sten Eirik Jacobsen and Dr. Claus Nerlov from Lund University are investigating the three growth factors in the blood system of mice that promote and regulate the expansion of blood-forming stem cells. Their aim is to focus on understanding the mechanisms by which these growth factors work, and how they contribute to rampant, uncontrolled cell growth – a hallmark of cancer. By studying these blood stem cells, much can be learned about stem cells in other organs, including the pancreas.
• Dr. Olle Lindvall and Dr. Zaal Kokaia from Lund University are trying to develop therapies for stroke based on neural stem cells by investigating which cell culture conditions work best for guiding nerve stem cells to develop into the type of brain cell that dies during stroke and must be replaced. By inserting these stem cells into the brains of mice that suffered a stroke, the scientists will use a special technique that will allow them to track and identify the cells after they have specialized into brain cells. They also will explore the biological mechanisms regulating the natural form of repair in which nerve cells that died in the brain from stroke are sometimes replaced by new neurons generated from the brain’s own neural stem cells.
• Dr. Thomas Perlmann and Dr. Johan Ericson from Karolinska Institute are working towards a stem cell therapy in Parkinson’s disease by trying to coax embryonic stem cells to develop into nerve cells that produce dopamine. Because dopamine-producing neurons are damaged in people with Parkinson’s disease, the scientists are trying to derive new dopamine-producing neurons from embryonic stem cells. They have already identified genes that play critical roles for the generation of these cells, and have also genetically engineered mice embryonic stem cells to create dopamine-producing neurons. This project will take the next step by transplanting the stem-cell derived neurons into the brains of mice with Parkinson’s disease, which will show whether neurons have the ability to survive and restore lost functions in the affected animals.
• Dr. Helena Edlund from Umea is working to identify the best conditions that will allow human embryonic stem cells to develop into insulin-producing beta cells for transplantation into people with diabetes. Her project will try to find the best cell cultures and mixture of growth factors that will guide the stem cells down the right path to being fully developed functioning beta cells.
• Dr. Henrik Semb from Lund University have already discovered that human embryonic stem cells will turn into insulin-secreting cells if they are allowed to develop in the presence of an embryonic mouse pancreas, suggesting that embryonic stem cells receive important cues from other cells in the developing pancreas in order to specialize into beta cells. Dr. Semb will lead a team of other researchers to try to reproduce the developmental cues in their laboratory, with the ultimate goal of transforming human embryonic stem cells into insulin-secreting beta cells.
•Dr. Cecilia Anneren from Karolinska Institute will investigate the mechanisms that allow human embryonic stem cells to readily multiply while remaining in an “undifferentiated” state, as increased knowledge about the basic properties of embryonic stem cells will help scientists as they manipulate these cells for further research into developing therapies for diseases like diabetes.