Finding a cure for diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s is the ultimate goal for Dr. Craig Cady, assistant professor of biology. “When you meet people suffering from these diseases, you feel a lot of self-imposed drive.”
Working in a neurophysiology lab within the Biology Department at Olin Hall, Cady’s research involves forcing stem cells to function like neurons. His research also involves working with Dr. Ken Franco, a cardio-thoracic surgeon at Methodist Medical Center, to study the possibility of altering stem cells to function as heart cells. The lab is funded by a $25,000 grant from PeoriaNEXT, an organization formed to promote science, technology, and creativity in the Peoria area; a $75,000 Methodist Medical Center Foundation grant; and start-up dollars from Bradley.
“We work with three kinds of stem cells,” Cady explains, noting he is not conducting research with the controversial embryonic stem cells, “human bone marrow, rat bone marrow, and human umbilical cord stem cells.”
Spearheaded by Illinois State Representative David Leitch (R-93rd District), a stem cell cord blood law has been passed, making Illinois the only state that mandates that a pregnant woman is asked during her second trimester if she wants to donate the umbilical cord for stem cell research at no cost to the donor. Typically, the umbilical cord is disposed of.
THE VALUE OF STEM CELLS
Cady addresses why stem cell research is important. “A couple of things make stem cells differ from other cells. First, stem cells remain stem cells when they divide. They don’t become brain cells or heart cells. They’re undifferentiated, meaning they have no one specific function. They’re found in many parts of the body. The reason they’re all over is they can become specialized cells under the right stimulation. Stem cells play an important role in replacing damaged cells. However, stroke or certain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease can result in the death of neurons that are not replaced. Now, we hope we are able to replace those dead neurons with stem cells that can convert to neurons.”
". . . they can become specialized cells under
Cady continues, “I got into this field when I was at Southern Illinois University College of Medicine. A woman at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., did an experiment on mice. She injected stem cells into the blood vessel in the tails of mice. She was studying heart diseases, and when she looked at where these stem cells went, she found that they went to the heart and also into many areas of the brain. There’s a barrier between general circulation and the brain, but the stem cells could get across that and got into the brain without damage. Stem cells show a behavior called chemotaxis, meaning they migrate to injury sites in response to chemical signals from injured cells. We don’t know why they exhibit this behavior, but if you can inject stem cells into the general circulation and they can move into the brain, this is something that has great potential for using stem cells to treat brain injury and diseases. It’s that exciting feature that got me in the field. Patients with Parkinson’s disease have had a very specific group of neurons die in the brain as a result of the disease.”
Ultimately, the goal is to help patients suffering from brain-related disease and injury by replacing the dead cells with the altered stem cells. Four undergraduate research assistants have helped Cady in the research lab. With Cady at the helm, they have found a mix of stem cells, chemicals, and gases that stimulate the stem cells to behave like neurons.
RESEARCH FOR THE RIGHT RECIPE
Finding that correct mix took nearly a year of research to get the cells to the point where they looked like neurons. From there, they began to reach out and contact each other like neurons do. The stem cells can be stimulated to work like neurons over a 24-hour period. “Next, we checked to see if they have proteins only found in neurons. We’ve started testing and found they are expressing these proteins. Since we can successfully make stem cells look like neurons and stimulate them to make proteins found only in neurons, we are now determining if they function like neurons.”
Another branch of Cady‘s research involves transplanting stem cells into animals. “We are collaborating with Dr. Dzung Dinh, the head of the Neurosurgery Department at the University of Illinois College of Medicine here in Peoria. We have a rat model of a spinal cord injury. We transplant the stem cells into the spinal cord of the injured animal and determine if the stem cells integrate into the damaged areas of the spinal cord. These experiments are designed to replace damaged cells in the spinal cord in order to recover limb function and improve mobility.”
Looking at the stem cell research for heart cells, Cady says his work is still in the early stages of development. He says, “I don’t know as much about heart cells. Kate [Koehler Pastucha ’06, a cell and molecular biology major,] and I designed a technique to culture heart muscle cells from sheep. We were able to isolate and culture these cells the first time we attempted this. Exposing the stem cells to lower amounts of oxygen improved their
Cady is part of a stem cell research team based in Peoria. Also on the team are Dr. Franco, Dr. Dinh, and Dr. Jasti Rao, a cancer researcher at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. The team meets weekly to discuss stem cell research as it applies to cancer, cardiac, and neurological patients. “We want the Peoria area to become a center for stem cell research in Illinois,” says Cady.
In addition to his stem cell research, Cady is researching how estrogen protects the
Dr. Kent Christopherson II ’97, assistant professor at the Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science in Houston, is conducting stem cell research, as well. “I run an umbilical cord blood research protocol for the collection of cord blood stem cells. We use it to study stem cell transplantation for treatment of malignant and non-malignant severe blood diseases. Malignant diseases would be cancers such as leukemias and lymphomas. An example of a non-malignant disease would be fanconi anemia.”
Christopherson continues, “Bone marrow and cord blood are both used routinely to treat children with leukemia. However, in adults, the numbers of stem cells you can obtain from a single cord blood collection is limited.” He explains, “When we look at the number of stem cells required to successfully undergo a bone marrow or cord blood transplant, adults require many more stem cells simply because of their size.”
He says that with both cord blood and bone marrow, there are limited numbers of stem cells; however, with bone marrow you can keep pulling out more marrow until you have enough stem cells. “With cord blood, you’re limited to what’s there at the time of delivery of a baby. In a single cord collection, at best, you can collect 120 to 150 milliliters, and with bone marrow, you could take out a liter to a liter and a half if you needed to.”
“Our goal is to look at the mechanism of stem cell transplant efficiency so we can create clinical protocols for using cord blood as a source for stem cells to transplant into adult patients.” He explains that transplant efficiency is very poor. “Less than 1 percent of the cells transplanted end up where they’re supposed to be, in the patient’s bone marrow. By designing methods to increase efficiency, sources of donor stem cells that are limited in cell number, such as umbilical cord blood, could be more routinely used.”
Discussing his research, Christopherson says, “We have a target enzyme called CD26. By inhibiting this enzyme, we can already increase transplant efficiency in a mouse transplant model.”
Christopherson and his wife Susan Kreykes Christopherson ’97, a physical therapist, have three children.
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