Home grown

A scarcity of viable embryonic stem cell lines spurs researchers to grow their own

Angela Wyant


If embryonic stem cells live up to their current buzz, they’ll produce cures for some of the most deadly diseases. At Stanford, that great hope is housed in one equipment-packed 500-square-foot room.

For now, this is the only place on campus where Stanford researchers can work with embryonic stem cells created after Aug. 9, 2001, when President George W. Bush banned federal funding for research using new stem cell lines.

This policy means that research with any newer cell lines must take place in designated lab space and with equipment supported by non-federal sources of funding — leaving only the small, privately funded room available to Julie Baker, PhD, assistant professor of genetics, who’s leading Stanford’s efforts to create new embryonic stem cell lines.

Stanford is one of a handful of U.S. universities engaged in efforts to create new lines. Why not just use the old cells? Because they’re simply no good, says Baker. After years of life in the lab, they’ve developed chromosomal abnormalities and weak constitutions — posing a constant struggle for researchers trying to work with them. Furthermore, no one can guarantee that they’re free of viral contaminants, which rules them out for human therapies.

Julie Baker
  A round colony of about 400 human embryonic stem cells surrounded by spindly fibroblast cells – which provide nourishment for the colony.

So Baker and Barry Behr, PhD, director of Stanford’s in vitro fertilization laboratory, have teamed up to gather stem cells from donated 5-day-old embryos that were left over after IVF procedures. These roughly 200-cell balls contain an inner clump of cells that go on to form every tissue in the body. These are the embryonic stem cells. Grown in a lab dish, they can divide to produce more of themselves, or they can mature into nerves, insulin-producing cells or even form tiny clusters of early heart cells that beat a steady rhythm.

Baker and Behr plan to bank thousands of lines: some healthy lines for use in therapies, and some lines that carry genetic defects, which will be valuable for research on diseases including cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and Down’s syndrome.

“Part of the goal is just learning how to derive new lines,” adds Baker. Right now only about one in 20 attempts to create cell lines is successful, and those lines are often not perfectly healthy. She and Behr hope that by trying new conditions for isolating and growing the cells they’ll hit upon the magic combination that allows human embryonic stem cells to thrive.

“In the short term, I just want a viable human embryonic stem cell line to work on, but we are hopeful that long-term therapies will result,” she says

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