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Lines of life; Stem cell bank launched at UMass.

Byline: Lisa Eckelbecker

SHREWSBURY - It takes a few seconds to get a glimpse of the precious cargo loaded into the laboratory cooler that Dr. Gary Stein opens, mostly because of the frosty fog that billows out.

Then the air clears, and boxes of samples come into view: human embryonic stem cells.

It's the initial inventory for the new UMass Stem Cell Bank, a repository that organizers hope will come to hold more than 100 types of stem cells. Launched with a $7.7 million state grant, the bank is an early sign of Gov. Deval L. Patrick's push to invest $1 billion in the life sciences in Massachusetts over 10 years to promote the state's economy. Starting Wednesday, the bank will begin accepting embryonic stem cell "deposits," the first step in eventually making cells available to researchers.

Officials say the bank will prove useful because it will do more than store and distribute cells.

"It's not just a matter of receiving a cell line and carrying out an investigation on the material," said Dr. Stein, interim director of the UMass Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. "These cells have very specific requirements to be able to go ahead and maintain so they have potential, which is the hallmark of a stem cell. We not only provide the cells to investigators, we provide training on how to grow them."

The UMass bank, with the ambition to be an international repository, is part of an operation that includes a stem cell registry, an online collection of information about known stem cell lines around the world. Yet the bank will not be the only entity seeking to serve stem cell researchers.

The National Stem Cell Bank in Wisconsin holds 21 stem cell lines approved for research projects funded with federal money. WiCell Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin is developing a stem cell bank and exploring the creation of "clinical" grade quantities of stem cells suitable for medical products. Some companies distribute stem cell lines. So does the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. The United Kingdom is developing a stem cell bank, and a Japanese researcher has raised the idea of a bank in Japan.

Erik Forsberg, WiCell executive director, said he was not familiar with the UMass bank but that WiCell is willing to work with anyone interested in getting a bank of cells available to scientists.

"The more banks that are available that focus on certain types of cells, and maybe even have some redundancy for safety purposes, is a good thing," he said.

The objective of the UMass stem cell bank is to spur research and economic growth in the state, said Dr. Terence R. Flotte, dean of UMass Medical School.

"Our highest goal is to accelerate the pace of the generation of new treatments for previously incurable diseases," Dr. Flotte said. "We think that a ready access to high-quality stem cells will accelerate that, and accelerate our ability as a whole to help people."

Embryonic stem cells are the body's master cells. They can divide for long periods of time, filling a lab dish with clumps of more embryonic stem cells. They can also differentiate into specialized cells, such as cells for the body's blood system.

Some researchers think embryonic stem cells have the potential to answer questions about human health and treat disease. The cells have been controversial, however, because researchers have typically plucked them out of early-stage embryos in a process that destroys the embryos.

In 2001, President Bush limited federally funded research on embryonic stem cells to certain "lines" of cells that were in existence at that time. Yet since his decision, researchers around the world have used money from foundations and corporations to create many more embryonic stem cell lines.

Most recently, researchers have used skin cells in laboratories to generate "induced pluripotent stem cells," or iPS cells, that have the qualities of stem cells. These cells may be especially valuable in illustrating the mechanisms at work in diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's disease.

Massachusetts is the biggest producer of embryonic stem cells in the world, yet keeping the cells going requires expertise and labor-intensive work, according to Dr. Leonard I. Zon, director of the Children's Hospital Stem Cell Program in Boston. The UMass bank could take over that work from researchers, he said.

"I think this takes a lot of the burden off an individual lab," Dr. Zon said. It could leave scientists free "to focus more on your science. I think that's going to be very, very helpful," he said.

The UMass bank fits naturally with Worcester's colleges and universities and with the medical school's new advanced therapeutics cluster focused on medical technologies and treatments, according to Dr. Robert P. Lanza, chief scientific officer of Worcester-based Advanced Cell Technology Inc., a small stem cell company that will make all its stem cell lines available to the UMass bank.

"I think this is a seminal step for the university," Dr. Lanza said in an e-mail. "It launches the medical school - and the city - into a new era. This will be the most extensive stem cell repository in the country, and should help attract jobs and talent to the region."

The UMass bank and stem cell registry exist at the medical school's Shrewsbury campus, a collection of buildings once used by the Worcester Foundation for Biomedical Research, which is now part of UMass. Funding from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, the entity overseeing the state's life sciences initiative, helped renovate and equip a building housing the stem cell bank.

A UMass life sciences task force has reported that the medical school will seek $6 million in additional funding for stem cell bank and registry operations in their second and third years.

A staff of about 10 will take in stem cells, confirm their characteristics, grow them, freeze them and send them out to laboratories for use in research. The UMass bank is not set up to supply stem cells for manufacture into medical products.

A quirk of the stem cell bank is that just about everything comes in twos. One set of labs and equipment will be used for the "presidential lines," the stem cell lines approved by the Bush administration for federally funded research. The second set of labs and equipment will be available for cell lines created outside federal restrictions.

"We have duplicates of everything," Dr. Stein told journalists recently during a tour of the center.

In an interview, Dr. Stein said the UMass bank has been preparing for its opening by working with two stem cell lines. He said the bank will hold presidential lines and lines generated at Harvard University. The bank expects to hold newer iPS lines as well as lines created through traditional methods.

If successful, the bank could ultimately hold many cell lines.

About 20 to 30 specific cell lines could prove to be most popular with researchers, but a valuable bank would benefit from having enough lines to reflect the population and different diseases, according to Dr. Zon of Children's Hospital.

ART: PHOTOS

CUTLINE: (1) In a staged demonstration, Research Associate Alicia Allaire, left, and Lab Manager Meng-Jiao Shi showcase frozen trays that will soon hold human embryonic stem cells. The trays are kept at a temperature of minus 170 degrees Celsius at the UMass Human Embryonic Stem Cell Bank in Shrewsbury. (2) Dr. Gary Stein, interim director of the UMass Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.

PHOTOG: ALEX WITKOWICZ PHOTOS
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Title Annotation:BUSINESS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Sep 28, 2008
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