August 19, 2011 5:45 AM
Tulane stem cell biologist Aline Betancourt has discovered a method to “educate” stem cells so they will either turn on or turn off the body’s inflammatory response.
Stem cells are cells that have not yet differentiated into ones that have a specific role in the body. Taking stem cells from the bone marrow of adult volunteers, Betancourt instructs them to produce the desired response by stimulating a specific receptor on them.
“Receptors determine the fate of the cell,” Betancourt says. “You’re telling them, ‘this is the mission to respond to inflammation or to produce inflammation when that would help the body heal.’”
Working in the Tulane Center for Stem Cell Research and Regenerative Medicine, Betancourt demonstrated that adult stem cells share the same receptors as immune cells, which signal a danger to the body.
“Immune cells and stem cells work together as partners — part of the same system,” says Betancourt. The two types of cells are in an intricate pas de deux inside the body to respond at sites of injury or attack by viruses, bacteria and other invaders.
The Tulane Office of Technology Transfer has assisted Betancourt in applying for a patent on this process to “educate” the stem cells.
Betancourt has launched a start-up company, Wibi+Works, to design and produce therapies using stem cells that specifically will target inflammatory diseases.
Melissa Androuny, a Tulane fourth-year MD/MBA student working as an intern at the New Orleans BioInnovation Center, helped conduct an analysis for Betancourt to determine which disease will be the first for her clinical trials: arthritis.
“My dream has always been to transfer my work into the clinic, so I’m always trying to find faster ways to do that,” Betancourt. With luck, she believes clinical trials using her designer stem cells will begin with arthritis patients in five years.
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