Cellular healing offers fresh hope

Rudolf Jaenisch has dedicated his life to helping people who are battling neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. And while his parents and grandparents chose careers in medicine, he chose the healing path of cellular science.

A top biomedical researcher at Massachusetts Institute for Technology, Jaenisch conducts research using laboratory-created human stem cells called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells and new technologies that enable mutated genes that cause disease in cells to be replaced with healthy ones.

His work, which is leading to the development of new therapies and fresh hope for patients, has earned him numerous honors including the National Medal of Science in 2011 and the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology in 2015 and the opportunity to be this year’s Caskey Lecturer at the University of South Carolina. The free lecture is set for 6 p.m. March 1 at the School of Medicine (Building 3, M2 classroom).

Professors Esmaiel Jabbari, chemical engineering, and Hexin Chen, biology, both conduct stem cell research at Carolina and look forward to hearing Jaenisch.

“iPS cells are similar to embryonic cells in that they can be induced to become the cells in all human tissues like nerve cells or heart cells or brain cells,” Jabbari says. “They’re derived from skin cells of any person or patient and then transformed into iPS cells that can be differentiated to any cell type. For example, they can be differentiated to neurons to treat Parkinson’s disease in the same patient. iPS cells are very promising in the next 10 to 20 years to treat diseases – from Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s and from osteoarthritis to kidney failure or heart disease.”

Chen calls Jaenisch a pioneer. “These recent advances in this field have revolutionized current research and opened new doors of opportunities to cure diseases in which cure was almost impossible to imagine,” he says.

Jabbari’s biomedical research focuses on bone-forming stem cells and the processes that enable the cells to regenerate once implanted into a bone defect caused by a traumatic injury or a cancerous tumor.

Chen, who was named a Breakthrough Star in 2014, explores the role of stem cells in breast cancer, conducting research to understand the nature of mutated stem cells in cancerous tumors and how they transform. 

“It is fascinating to learn that stem cells have the ability to generate any kind of cell, from hair follicles to cardiac muscles,” says Chen who says unlocking the mystery of that cellular differentiation is the key to developing therapeutic treatments for nearly all physical conditions and disease. “With current knowledge about stem cells and iPS, we are on the verge of first clinical trials of cell replacement therapy.”

Jaenisch has been a biology researcher at MIT for 30 years. He is the founding member of MIT’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

“The discovery of iPS in 2006 was a major advance in research to address degenerative neurological disorders. Recent advances are focusing on the editing of genes, where we are able to really study these degenerative diseases on a cellular level,” Jaenisch says. “With each advance there is greater understanding of how diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or Autism work in the human body. And with that, there is fresh hope for patients living with these diseases.”

The Caskey Lecture series was created in 2004 by alumnus Dr. C. Thomas Caskey, and is one of the College of Arts and Sciences’ premier lectureships. Its focus is the impact of 21st century advances in biotechnology and medicine.

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