The Nobel Assembly announced this month that the 2012 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine would go to a pair of scientists whose Aha! moments came almost a half-century apart. But what Sir John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka have in common is that they both pioneered the field of stem cell research. Today their work is paving the way for new discoveries from the labs of Oklahoma scientists.
In 1962 experiments with frogs, Gurdon showed that scientists could refashion any cell in the adult body into any other type of cell. From those experiments, we learned it was theoretically possible to take cells from one part of the body and transform them into heart, pancreas, brain or any other type of cell. This research offered incredible potential for treating traumas such as spinal cord injuries and illnesses like diabetes, Alzheimer's and heart disease.
Forty-five years later, Yamanaka took a major step toward transforming this potential into reality. Building on the research of Gurdon and others, he devised a method to take cells from human adults and make them like the cells of embryos, which can develop into any type of cell.
Using these embryo-like cells, known as induced pluripotent stem cells or adult stem cells, researchers are now trying to fashion new therapies for myriad diseases and medical conditions. With the help of the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, Oklahoma scientists are playing a key role in this effort.
In 2010, TSET created the Oklahoma Center for Adult Stem Cell Research (OCASCR). After just 27 months of operation, OCASCR has awarded 26 research grants to researchers at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma State University and the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. Come January, it will present 10 more grant awards to our state's researchers.
For decades, stem cells harvested from umbilical cord blood or adult bone marrow have saved the lives of leukemia patients. But now we're looking for ways to expand the use of stem cell cures. OCASCR funds are helping Oklahoma scientists learn how to repair lungs injured by tobacco smoking. They're also helping researchers find ways to harden bones softened with osteoporosis. OCASCR grants may also open windows on how to reverse conditions like atherosclerosis, dementia, blindness and diabetes.
Today's biomedical research efforts are technology-intensive, and work with stem cells is no different. OCASCR has purchased 14 instruments such as specialized microscopes for core facilities that serve Oklahoma scientists. OCASCR has also used funds to invite national and international experts to present their findings to Oklahoma scientists. It has organized meetings with civic groups and other Oklahomans eager to understand the promise and limitations of adult stem cell research.
Stem cells offer the potential to treat some of our most challenging medical conditions. With continued support of this research, Oklahoma can expect to see its investments help reap new insights into — and ultimately treatments for — diseases that affect Oklahomans and people everywhere.
Kincade is scientific director of the Oklahoma Center for Adult Stem Cell Research. He is vice president of research at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.