Stem-Cell Supply and Demand

August 20, 2003

Heather Heilman
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Darwin Prockop at the press conference One day soon, adult stem cells might be used to cure Alzheimer's disease or heal spinal-cord injuries, but progress toward those ends has been hindered by the difficulty scientists have had reproducing each other's results.

"There's a tremendous interest in these cells," said Darwin Prockop, director of the Tulane Center for Gene Therapy. "The problem is they're difficult to prepare reproducibly in a standardized way. Different laboratories prepare them in slightly different ways and get different results, and nobody can sort out the truth."

But if everyone started with the same raw materials, the results of one lab could be duplicated in another and meaningful comparisons could be made between experiments.

Prockop was able to convince the National Institutes of Health of the need for such standardized cells--and that Tulane is the right place to prepare and distribute them. It helped that he had the broad support of researchers in the field.

The National Institutes of Health, the federal focal point for medical research in the United States, received letters from 162 scientists in 12 countries who backed Tulane's application--even though many of them were competing for money from the same pool. In June, the National Institutes of Health announced that Tulane has been awarded a five-year, $4.3 million grant from the National Center for Research Resources to establish a center for the preparation, testing and distribution of stem cells for use in non-clinical research. The cells will be available for a nominal fee to stem-cell researchers around the globe, although National Institutes of Healthfunded research will have priority.

The cells will come from the bone marrow of adult humans and of rats. Stem cells can replicate themselves rapidly, so that a teaspoon of bone marrow can, in two weeks time, yield a billion cells. Those cells have the ability to transform themselves into many different cell types, including bone, cartilage, nerve, heart and fat cells.

Scientists are investigating ways in which they can replace damaged cells in the body, and offer revolutionary treatment for a broad range of diseases and injuries including Parkinson's disease, arthritis and heart disease. They could also obviate the need for organ transplants.

Prockop has successfully developed a method of using stem cells to treat brittle bone disease in children. Darwin Prockop and Paul Whelton He was greeted with cheers and enthusiastic applause when he stood up to speak at the press conference where the new grant was announced, which was one indication of how significant this is for Tulane.

The university was the first to establish a center for research on adult stem cells, sidestepping the issues involved in working with embryonic stem cells. Now Tulane and Louisiana are at the forefront of this field--one that according to Ian Taylor, dean of the Tulane University School of Medicine, represents a true revolution in medicine.

That's a remarkable place to be when you consider that both the Tulane Center for Gene Therapy and the Louisiana Gene Therapy Research Consortium--a state-funded collaborative effort with Louisiana State University--are only about three years old.

"It's extraordinary that we're at this stage so quickly," said Paul Whelton, senior vice president for health sciences. Stem-cell research has had a significant impact on local economic development. Each million dollars of research-grant money translates into 35 good jobs, according to Whelton. The manufacturing and distribution center currently has four employees and will expand to have as many as 11. It's located in the Tidewater Building but will move to the Wirth Building at 1400 Canal St. when renovations are completed.

The center is currently oversupplied with people who want to donate bone marrow. Although the stem cells that will be prepared and distributed to other labs are for use in non-clinical research only, human trials using stem cells to treat spinal-cord injuries could begin within a year in New Orleans, according to Prockop.

Heather Heilman can be reached at

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000