Posted: Apr 12, 2012
Dr. Mary Laughlin is Chief of the Stem Cell Transplant Program and Professor of Medicine at the University of Virginia. Her work in cellular therapy is known internationally.
CBR: What sparked your interest in stem cells and stem cell therapies?
Dr. Mary Laughlin: I grew up in Buffalo, New York, and there was a cancer center in our region – Roswell Park Cancer Center. I was part of a fast track high school program that put me straight into the University of Rochester, which was a combined undergraduate program with an immediate move to medical school. It was a completely sterile environment, and they were performing allogeneic (unrelated) transplants in patients with blood related cancers. So, very early on I was intrigued with this concept of using stem cells to treat diseases. Medicine over the past two centuries has seen the development of drugs to treat the symptoms of a disease, but now we are entering into an entirely different landscape to use cells as a biologic therapy to change the course of a disease and perhaps trigger the body to repair itself.
CBR: Describe for our readers the different kinds of stem cells that are being considered for therapies.
Dr. Mary Laughlin: I divide the world of stem cells into three types, with pros and cons to each stem cell source. There are embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells from bone marrow or mobilized peripheral blood of adult donors, and then there are cord blood stem cells. From my perspective, cord blood, both in its applications in standard hematology applications as well as more recent applications outside of hematology within the realm of regenerative medicine, really lies between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells.
Thousands of humans have been transplanted with cord blood. These successes don’t get coverage in the press because it's not controversial. Cord blood is accepted by the Vatican and all religious groups because it's collected after the birth of a baby. Cord blood has multi-potential stem cells. When you inject cord blood cells either into mice or into people, they do not form tumors or undergo malignant transformation.
CBR: What current stem cell research intrigues you the most?
Dr. Mary Laughlin: I appreciate the body's own mechanism of repairing all its organs, including the brain, the heart, the kidney, or the lung, rely in some way on marrow-derived cells which are constantly responding to cues of injuries in a variety of organs. For example, when a person is having a heart attack, if you draw their blood and you compare that to a group of people with cardiovascular disease who are not in the middle of heart attack, the number of hematopoietic stem cells (like bone marrow or cord blood) circulating in their blood increases in response to that heart attack. In other words, the body mobilizes cells to help repair the organ.
Now, we've come to understand when you introduce therapeutic cells, these cells are able to find the area of injury and secrete proteins that enhance and mediate reparative function by direct cell-to-cell interactions.
Other areas of interest for me in regenerative medicine are autoimmune diseases like diabetes and research in spinal cord injury.
CBR: What do you think stem cell therapies will look like 10 years from now?
Dr. Mary Laughlin: In some ways, the future is now –we are not only learning about the nature of these stem cells – that they’re the body's natural tool for repairing itself – but we are also learning quite a bit about specific bioactive proteins and lipids that impact the function of the cells. This work to understand how stem cells travel and how they’re retained within injured areas to assist in the body's own reparative mechanism – that’s where we're going over the next ten years.