The Columbia Center for Stem Cell Therapies
The Columbia Center for Stem Cell Therapies (CSCT) was established to harness the knowledge and skill of Columbia University scientists to advance the field of stem cell research toward clinical applications in patients.
Stem cells can regenerate damaged tissues. They are therefore studied intensely in the hopes of applying these cells to restore the function of organs or tissues. We can distinguish two major kinds of stem cells.
The first are so-called ‘pluripotent stem cells.' These cells can come from very early embryos, and can in theory be differentiated (converted) into any cell of the body. More frequently nowadays, very similar pluripotent stem cells can be obtained by a process of ‘reprogramming’ of pretty much any cell of the body, most often blood or skin cells. These are called ‘induced pluripotent stem cells’.
Pluripotent stem cells offer enormous promise for regenerative medicine. Several hurdles remain however. These include the development robust strategies to convert these cells to a desired cell type or tissues, devising approaches to engraft these cells into a damaged tissue to effect repair, making sure that these cells will not cause any cancers in the host, and generating these cells in conditions that allow their use in patients. Furthermore, it is still not clear which type of pluripotent stem cells should be used. Induced pluripotent stem cells made from skin cells from the patient will not be rejected after transplantation. Making these cells is, however, a complicated, expensive and lengthy procedure. Efforts are therefore ongoing to try to devise pluripotent stem cells are more ‘universal’ and could be used ‘off-the-shelf’, without being rejected by the patient’s immune system.
The second type of stem cells are ‘adult’ stem cells. These are specific to a given tissue: blood stem cells in the bone marrow produce blood cells, skin stem cells take care of the continuous production of new skin cells. Some of these are currently used in the treatment of diseases. Bone marrow stem cells, for example, are used to treat leukemia and immune deficiencies. Skin stem cells are used to treat burn patients. In this area, many challenges remain however. The function of adult stem cells tends to decline with age, thus contributing to the degeneration of tissues. Aged stem cells, even though they may the patient’s own, are therefore unlikely to be useful for regenerative medicine. Another hurdle is obtaining sufficient numbers of adult stem cells. While pluripotent stem cells can be cultured and expanded indefinitely, this is not the case for many adult stem cells. It is, for example, are almost impossible to expand blood stem cells in the lab.
The Columbia Center Stem Cell Therapies currently consists of a core group of faculty within the Department of Medicine focusing on stem cell science. The mission of the Center is to bring stem cell-based regenerative medicine approaches closer to clinical application. This is an ambitious and long-term goal. Although for a variety of diseases, such as Parkinson’s, spinal cord injury and some eye diseases, small-scale, early clinical studies are ongoing, routine application of stem cells in regenerative medicine may be more than a decade away. This, however, should be an even greater incentive to gain scientific insight and develop break-through technologies to meet the challenges of medicine in the next decade.