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Vol 56 No. 13 | Oct. 2004
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Biochemistry Prof at CSULB Studying Umbilical Cords
in Search for Non-Controversial Stem Cell Source

Stem cells, which can potentially turn into many types of human tissue and could lead to new treatments for a range of illnesses, are one of the most promising yet controversial areas of medical science today.

Much of the controversy results from using human embryos as one source of cells, but an assistant professor of biochemistry at CSULB is among scientists looking at a readily available and non-controversial source of stem cells—human umbilical cords left over from the birth process.

Michael P. Myers recently received a $37,380 Cottrell College Science Award from the Research Corp., a private foundation that funds scientific research, to study chemistry that affects how stem cells from umbilical tissue begin to differentiate into other types of cells. Researchers hope to use stem cells to develop therapies for a number of medical conditions such as brain and nervous system diseases, diabetes and cancer.

Myers, who has a Ph.D. in physiology from the University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York, conducted post-doctoral research at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine. He then did a visiting professorship at Kansas State University with Professor Kathy Mitchell, now at the University of Kansas. Mitchell and her colleagues discovered the presence of stem cells in the cords' cushioning matter called Wharton's jelly.

“For a long time the umbilical cord was ignored primarily because people didn't believe that stem cells could be there,” explained Myers, who joined the CSULB faculty in 2002. “But now it makes perfect sense. You have the fetus and the embryo and then you get attachment and now you have this bloodline moving between the mother and the child. The cells would be primordial that move between it. We think that they get lodged in the umbilical cord in this cushioning part and those are embryonic-like cells. These stem cells were extracted at KSU, and initial tests revealed that they have telomerase [a cellular enzyme] and all the markers that stem cells have.” The cells also remain robust over numerous replications, which is important not only for research but for possible medical applications.

“The cells are multipotent, meaning we can differentiate them into different cell types but they're not totipotent, meaning that they cannot make an embryo,” he said. “What we want to do here at Cal State Long Beach is do further testing of the cells because we think that they're even better than embryonic cells.”

Using umbilical tissue acquired from Kansas State, Myers and his student lab group at Long Beach are pursuing several areas of research on umbilical stem cells and are collaborating with other CSULB faculty researchers who have related research interests. Lijuan Li, an associate professor, is studying the chemical nitric oxide, which affects many biological processes, and Professor Roger Acey is looking at biochemical and genetic factors involved in early embryonic development.

“It seems like we expose the cells to nitric oxide and they differentiate into neurons,” Myers said.  “What has also been shown is, it depends on what time you do it. So if you starve the cells of nitric oxide for a few days and then give it back to them, it seems like it affects their differentiation in a different way.   They become other types of cells. What is interesting now with biology, the huge debate for stem cell research—setting the controversy aside for a minute—is what are these cells doing? What pathway are they following?   It seems like by default they go neuronal, which is why all of the interest is in neuroscience right now in Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, etc.”

Myers' specialty is ion channels, proteins that enable electrically charged atoms to pass through cell membranes to cause chemical reactions affecting biological processes. He is focusing even further on channels that handle potassium.

Continuing work he began while in Kansas, Myers said, “We're trying to figure out how ion channel development affects stem cells. If you induce the cells down a neuronal pathway, they start to express potassium channels. If you don't induce them, you don't see any current on an electrophysiology patch clamp apparatus. This is the apparatus that I purchased with my startup funds from the college. This instrument allows you to record a very, very small pico-amp current. It's a very, very tiny current that comes out of these cells through these proteins called ion channels.”

Potassium channel research earned last year's Nobel Prize in chemistry. “Everything from your heart contracting to your brain firing impulses to movement, gait, is controlled through these ion channels,” Myers said. “The drugs that we use to put people under in anesthesia work on ion channels. So our understanding of these things is really critical. There's a huge emphasis on potassium channels. What we know now is, once you start to differentiate the cells, they start expressing these ion channels that I study. What I'm doing is sticking to my old field, which is ion channel development and branching out into a new field, which is stem cell research, and trying to contribute what we know about stem cells by using my expertise in ion channel development. Nitric oxide also directly activates the potassium channels that I study.”

Myers said he expects to soon complete a research journal article about his work and to seek a research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to expand his study.

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