KC Checkup: Five Questions For Buddhadeb Dawn About Stem Cell Research

Dec 21, 2015

Found in most parts of the body, adult stem cells have the potential to grow into any of the body's more than 200 cell types, offering potential therapies for a number of diseases.

With scientists throughout Kansas working with adult stem cells, state lawmakers created the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center two years ago to serve as a hub for the stem cell research and treatment in Kansas.

The center is housed at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas, and it’s headed by Dr. Buddhadeb Dawn.

Adult stem cells are different from those yielded by embryos, which are usually the result of fertilized eggs left over from artificial insemination. Embryonic stem cells are controversial because some pro-life advocates consider this a destruction of human life.

Kansans for Life, in fact, hailed the 2013 bill establishing the center as a pro-life law.

Critics of the bill called it an unfunded mandate for KU Med, since the legislation did not designate any funding for the center, which the university estimated would cost about $10.7 million over 10 years. The Legislature, however, is now providing some funding for the center.

As part of our ongoing series KC Checkup, Dr. Dawn delved into some of the nuts and bolts of the center.

What types of research is the center involved in, including clinical trials?

So one of these trials in the near future would evaluate cardiac stem cell therapy for patients with reduced heart function and who had heart attacks. The other research, which leads up to clinical trials, are proof-of-concept studies and they show the feasibility of a research strategy.

So in this area, we have collaborated within the KU Medical Center, as well as locally, and we are testing the potential of adult and umbilical cord Wharton’s jelly, which is the covering of the umbilical cord stem cells, to repair different organs, including the liver, spinal cord, heart, and even the brain. These are quite preliminary at this time, but we are very excited that these results are very encouraging.

What are some of the accomplishments the center has achieved in its two-year existence?

We have established a state-of the-art facility to produce clinical-grade stem cells. These cells need to be clinical grade because without that designation these cells cannot be utilized in humans. So with this facility we have been able to produce adult- as well as umbilical cord-derived stem cells for both research and future clinical use.

Education has been a solid focus and one of our top priorities, and in this area we have achieved two important things. First, on our website, we have provided very disease-specific information so that patients with specific conditions may be able to visit our website, find what diseases they have, and information related to those diseases and get educated about what stem cell therapies are available for those diseases at this time. And also they may learn more about therapies in general. Second, we have started an annual conference.

The center has 10 goals, according to your website, and many of the goals address collaboration with physicians in the region and public education. Could you please discuss how the center has acted on the collaboration and education facets of its mission?

Yes, we have made steady progress in our collaborations, both locally and nationally.

We have been working within the KU Cancer Center, for example, toward starting a clinical trial on graft-vs-host disease. This is a very debilitating disease in which the cells that are transplanted into a patient would revolt against the host and cause various manifestations throughout the body of the recipient. And this is a very promising area, for our pre-clinical research and may lead to a therapy in the future.

On the national level, we have worked with starting different trials to be made available through the center … that would offer cardiac stem cell therapy for patients who have reduced heart function. So physicians have been involved in some of our proof-of-concept studies as well, including neurologists as well as cardiologists. Through these trials the physicians are learning both how to inject stem cells as well as about mechanisms through which these cells may offer benefits to patients. For example to repair the heart, the brain and other organs.  

The center was established by the Legislature, as a service to the citizens of Kansas. How would you say you have been able to act on that mission in the first couple years?

So first, we are able to work with national and international investigators to bring truly cutting edge clinical trials. And patients in Kansas, as well as in the surrounding region, may enroll in those trials to get benefits through a stem cell injection, which they would not be able to get otherwise.  Second, by producing these stem cells, which are clinical grade, ready to go into patients, the center is helping Kansas investigators also, and many of them are physicians, to start new trials. Third, by making these stem cells, the center is helping local Kansas researchers to investigate the potential benefit of cell therapy in different models of human diseases. Fourth, we are also in the early stages of setting up collaborations with two or three biotech companies that may lead to investment in the local economy perhaps.

And finally, we have also started the process of educating health care providers and also the general public on the potential of adult stem cells, clarifying different misconceptions, letting them know of other treatment options, and these are all direct and indirect benefits to Kansans. We also field questions regularly from the public.

What are your hopes for the future in terms of research and breakthroughs?

So we are unique for many different reasons, but one of the primary ones is that we are focused on therapy, which is different from doing only basic, stem cell research or offering grant dollars. So at the same time, we are also very comprehensive, which distinguishes us from other centers around the country, because we are active in therapy, we are promoting education, and we are also finding, or are going to find, novel therapies through research.

So when you have a combination of these unique focus and a very dedicated team and legislative support, great things may happen.So we would like to, in the future, capitalize on the scientific data that are generated over the past two decades or so, and we would like to bring at least some of those to therapy, especially with adult stem cells.  We would also like to establish collaborations that lead to novel uses of adult stem cells for patients with an array of diseases for which there is no cure currently. And in order to realize these, we are to become self-sustainable, and this may happen through licensing our products as well as receiving money from philanthropic donors.

So over the long run we would like to become the destination for adult stem cell therapy in the entire region. We would like to be able to educate large numbers of physicians, researchers, and also the general public on stem cell therapies, and be able to offer options to patients who currently have no hope.

Mike Sherry is a reporter for KCPT television in Kansas City, Mo., a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.