April 25, 2005
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Junior Scientist at Joslin Diabetes Center Earns Two Prestigious Career Development Grants To Study Stem Cells
BOSTON -- In addition to a highly competitive national grant, Amy Wagers, Ph.D., a young scientist at Joslin Diabetes Center, has received another prestigious career-development award. Together, these grants are providing seed money to advance her promising studies of how blood-forming "stem" cells develop, function and migrate -- leading to more effective ways to treat diseases.
"These two awards punctuate the fact that Dr. Wagers is one of the most talented, up-and-coming stem cell researchers in biomedical research," said Joslin President C. Ronald Kahn, M.D. "Her work is already providing insights into the potential of this approach for treating diabetes, cancer and other diseases. It also holds tremendous promise for making transplants of blood-forming cells easier and more effective."
Dr. Wagers' most recent grant is the Smith Family New Investigator Award from the Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation, a two-year $200,000 grant effective through the end of 2006. It will augment her five-year $500,000 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award in Biomedical Sciences -- given annually to only about 20 outstanding young scientists nationwide to help them transition from postdoctoral studies to a faculty position. Dr. Wagers trained at Stanford University and joined the faculty of Joslin in 2004 as an Investigator in the Section on Developmental and Stem Cell Biology and an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School.
Together, the grants are giving strong impetus to her studies of blood-based stem cells, an important area of medical research. According to the International Bone Marrow Transplant Registry, each year more than 45,000 patients worldwide undergo bone marrow transplantation, primarily to treat leukemia, lymphoma or other cancers.
Studies of stem cells also apply to diabetes and its complications. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which immune cells called T cells --which arise from blood-forming stem cells -- go "bad." They mistakenly attack the body's own islet cells, the pancreatic cells that produce insulin, a hormone essential to life. Without insulin, the body cannot convert food into energy. One possible solution would be to infuse blood-forming stem cells from a non-diabetic donor that could give rise to "good" T cells, capable of halting this attack on the body's islet cells. Dr. Wagers and other scientists are looking for minimally invasive ways to promote such successful transplant strategies. Stem cells may also play a role in response to injury in other tissues of the body subjected to diabetes complications.
"Transplantation is a multi-step biological process," said Dr. Wagers. "Its success depends on the surprising ability of infused blood-forming stem cells to migrate to appropriate tissues in the body, lodge in 'niches' that will support their survival, and once there, to expand and repopulate the patient's blood with mature cells. Mediating these functions is crucial to more successful therapies."
New insights are clearly needed. Today's stem cell transplants carry significant risk of mortality. They often involve high doses of radiation and toxic drugs to kill diseased blood cells, such as those found in lymphoma or leukemia. The blood-forming tissues can then be reestablished by infusing disease-free stem cells from donors, or stem cells taken from the patient and purged of cancer cells. "Right now, transplants are too risky to justify treating type 1 diabetes this way, because it can be managed with other less-traumatic ways such as insulin injections," said Dr. Wagers. "Also, it can be difficult to find suitable donor cells, limiting patients' access to stem cell transplants."
To solve these problems, Dr. Wagers and other scientists are focusing on methods in which stem cells from the bone marrow are induced by drugs or natural protein signals to expand and migrate into the bloodstream, where they can be collected and used for transplantation. But the molecules that control this process are largely unknown. She is looking for the factors that regulate this migration and expansion and studying the expression of certain genes to elucidate their role in stem cell function. This will lead to better understanding of blood cell development, and ultimately, will translate into easier and more successful transplant therapies.
As part of her research, she is looking at how stem cells decide their fate. "When a blood-forming stem cell divides, it is faced with a crucial decision," said Dr. Wagers. "It can produce more stem cells (self-renewal), produce more mature daughter cells (differentiation), leave its niche (migration), or die (apoptosis). Our studies will provide new information about how these 'fate' decisions are balanced to maintain normal stem cell function -- allowing the blood system to respond properly to damage or stress."
About Joslin Diabetes Center
Joslin Diabetes Center, dedicated to conquering diabetes in all of its forms, is the global leader in diabetes research, care and education. Founded in 1898, Joslin is an independent nonprofit institution affiliated with Harvard Medical School. Joslin research is a team of more than 300 people at the forefront of discovery aimed at preventing and curing diabetes. Joslin Clinic, affiliated with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, the nationwide network of Joslin Affiliated Programs, and the hundreds of Joslin educational programs offered each year for clinicians, researchers and patients, enable Joslin to develop, implement and share innovations that immeasurably improve the lives of people with diabetes. As a nonprofit, Joslin benefits from the generosity of donors in advancing its mission. For more information on Joslin, call 1-800-JOSLIN-1 or visit www.joslin.org.
About the Burroughs Wellcome Fund
The Burroughs Wellcome Fund is an independent private foundation dedicated to advancing the medical sciences by supporting research and other scientific and educational activities. Within this broad mission, BWF seeks to accomplish two primary goals--to help scientists early in their careers develop as independent investigators, and to advance fields in the basic medical sciences that are undervalued or in need of particular encouragement.
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