The future of medicine

Heart disease. Cancer. Stroke. Diabetes. Alzheimer’s. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these are the Nos. 1, 2, 3, 6, and 7 leading causes of death in the United States, respectively, responsible for nearly 1.5 million deaths in 2004, the most recent year studied.

All await a cure—and eradication may be on its way with the arrival of Penn’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine (IRM).

Launched Nov. 27, the institute was created to promote discoveries in stem cell biology to treat some of the world’s most deadly diseases, wound healing and aging.

Jonathan Epstein, the institute’s co-director along with Ralph Brinster, says that over the past several years, Penn scientists have appreciated that stem cell biology is causing a revolution in many different sciences. Investigators from various disciplines developed a great interest in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine as important areas of research.

The suggestion to form a regenerative medicine institute came from many different Penn sources coalesced by Stephen Emerson, formally chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology at Penn. Emerson began discussions with Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Ronald Daniels before leaving to become president of Haverford College.

Steven Fluharty, vice provost for research at Penn, took reign after Emerson departed and approached Epstein and Brinster about organizing the institute. Epstein says the IRM is unique in that it expands across the entire University, bringing together multiple disciplines. Craig Thompson, director of Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center, says the center will participate in a host of IRM activities and is funding the initiation of a core facility to study adult stem cells and whether there are stem cells in human cancers.

Thompson says regenerative medicine could provide insights into how cancer develops. There is increasing evidence that cancer arises in adult stem cells, whose job it is to generate the renewal of cells that die during normal daily functions. It appears, he says, that those cells are most susceptible to being transformed with cancer.

“If we understand that process, it’s hope that we’ll find new ways to stop that and prevent cancer, or to be able to treat cancer once it’s begun to arise,” Thompson says.

Epstein, scientific director of the Penn Cardiovascular Institute, notes that in a heart attack, the heart muscle is damaged and killed. “If we could regrow new heart muscle, that would certainly help,” he says.

Stem cell biology could also help foster a better understanding of disease and develop new drugs to treat disease. “Very recent discoveries have suggested that we might be able to take skin cells from a patient who has Alzheimer’s disease and transform those skin cells into neurons in the laboratory and study why they’re different than normal neurons,” Epstein says. “You could imagine doing the same thing for patients with lots of different diseases.”

Arthur Caplan, chair of Penn’s Department of Medical Ethics, says regenerative medicine could possibly have the most immediate impact on diabetes. “If you could find some way to just fix those cells that make insulin,” he says, “that would probably have the biggest return in the short run.”

The IRM is up and running, with its administrative home in the basic research building in the School of Medicine. IRM members will reside in departments across the University. More than 200 scientists have already inquired about membership.

Originally published Jan. 10, 2008.