Best in class
September 2011
by Jeffrey Bouley  |  Email the author

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From People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" to U.S. News and World Report's "Best Graduate Schools" rankings, publications have taken the risk of having jeers directed their way for trying to determine the best of anything. But with Frost & Sullivan giving us guidance as to what it sees as the top academic and research institutions doing stem cell work, we got their take of the "best of the best" in various categories.
 
Here, in no particular order, we present the top five in academia in North America, as chosen by Frost & Sullivan.
 

 
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Mich.
 
Researchers here work with many different types of stem cells—animal, placental, adult, embryonic, cancer and induced pluripotent (iPS)—but Dr. Eva Feldman, a Russell N. DeJong professor of neurology and the director of the Taubman Institute at the University of Michigan (U-M), says the institution is especially strong in its work with embryonic and neuroprogenitor stem cells, and is now beginning to do extensive work with iPS cell lines.

She describes the stem cell research budget at the school as "in the tens of millions" and adds, "the University of Michigan has committed $2 million to the Taubman Institute's Consortium for Stem Cell Therapies, our core facility for the derivation of embryonic stem cell and iPS cell lines. But there are many scientists across the university who are also doing vital work with stem cells."

The goals of U-M's stem cell research are very much translational in nature, seeking to use what is learned about the cells in the lab to create new treatments for patients.

"We use stem cells to study the biology and progression of diseases, such as ALS, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis and others," Feldman says. "We are applying that knowledge in the field of regenerative medicine, implanting stem cells to protect and restore damaged tissues. We are also studying the biology of cancer stem cells and developing new therapies to limit their growth. Finally, we use stem cells for drug testing."

Among the key researchers for U-M are Feldman herself, who focuses on regenerative medicine in neurological diseases; Dr. Gary Smith, with expertise in human embryonic stem cell derivation; and Dr. Max Wicha, who is well known for his cancer stem cell biology skills.



Wake Forest University School of Medicine
Winston-Salem, N.C.

An important early discovery here was identifying the early-stage, organ-specific adult stem cells (progenitor cells) that can be multiplied outside the body and used to engineer functional tissue, which led to the world's first tissue-engineered organ—a bladder. Another significant discovery was in 2007, when researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) reported identifying a new source of stem cells—the amniotic fluid that surrounds the developing fetus and the placenta, or afterbirth.

The focus of Wake Forest's stem cell work is in developing cell therapies, using stem cells to engineer tissues and organs and exploring biomaterials or small molecules that can be injected or implanted in the body to recruit stem cells to the site of an injury or damage to promote healing from within.

"The goal of all of our work at the institute is to develop new therapies to improve patients' lives," says Dr. Anthony Atala, director of WFIRM. "Cells are the basis of regenerative medicine and are vital to what we do."

The institution works with most types of stem cells, including those from bone marrow, fat and skin (induced pluripotent stem cells), and also with the amnion-derived cells discovered by WFIRM scientists, says Karen Richardson, Wake Forest's senior communications manager, who says the stem cell budget is approximately $40 million a year.

"We continue to explore new sources of stem cells," she notes. "For example, we recently determined that multipotent stem cells can be routinely isolated from normal human urine."



Harvard Medical School
Boston

While Frost & Sullivan singled out the medical school specifically, stem cell research is more broad than that, handled under the umbrella of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI), which Harvard calls the "largest collaborative of its kind … a gathering place for a whole community of scientists and clinical experts in stem cell science seeking to bring new treatments to the clinic, and new life to patients with a wide range of chronic illnesses."

The HSCI includes not only various health organizations and departments within the school, but also the law school, business school, divinity school and others, with the recognition that "stem cell research is a challenge that involves areas of expertise not encompassed in any one discipline, department or school. Most importantly, basic biology must interface with medical expertise if the promise of this field is to be fully realized." Harvard describes the approach as a "new business model of a virtual R&D network."

Harvard has developed a portfolio approach to stem cell-related scientific research funding, with seed grants for about 10 early-stage projects per year; core facilities, which range from shared equipment centers to a drug screening and a reprogramming center; and disease programs, which encompass multi-lab programs tackling key questions in selected disease areas. Among the considerations in this research area are: the importance of the connection between clinical and basic research that is driven by a real clinical need; the need for a nonprofit organization to respond to unmet medical needs in markets that are too small for companies to address; and the use of Harvard's Center for Human Cell Therapy as the coordinating mechanism and leveraged resource for the HSCI when entering the clinic, negotiating with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and planning trials.



City of Hope's Beckman Research Institute
Duarte, Calif.

With such facilities and operations as its Center for Biomedicine & Genetics, which was designed and built specifically to produce biological molecules and cells—including stems cells—to federally mandated standards for use as therapies, City of Hope has drawn in tens of millions of dollars of funding from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) and from such organizations as the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), which recently awarded City of Hope an $8.6 million contract to facilitate stem cell research from laboratory to clinical study—this five-year contract is the first from the NHLBI to focus on development and manufacturing of stem cell therapies.

"This prestigious contract recognizes our unique stem cell research and manufacturing capabilities," said Dr. Michael A. Friedman, president and CEO of City of Hope and director of the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center at the time of the NHLBI announcement.  

Notably, Friedman was this year reappointed to a second, six-year term on the Independent Citizens' Oversight Committee, the governing board for CIRM. The Beckman Research Institute, while highlighted by Frost & Sullivan as a stem cell leader, is not devoted solely to stem cells, though such research informs much of its work. The first of only five Beckman Research Institutes established by funding from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, the City of Hope institute is responsible for "fundamentally expanding the world's understanding of how biology affects diseases such as cancer, HIV/AIDS and diabetes."



University of Southern California

Los Angeles

The Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the Keck School of Medicine, which is located at the University of Southern California (USC), was founded in 2006 with a mission to take discoveries in stem cell research "from our laboratories and apply them in therapeutic focus areas founded on outstanding clinical research programs at the Keck School." Therapeutic areas of interest include ophthalmology, liver disease, diabetes, cardiovascular medicine, oncology and hematology.

In 2010, the center began the next phase of its program development thanks to a gift from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and funding from CIRM, which resulted in the opening of USC's new $80 million facility called the Eli & Edythe Broad CIRM Center for Stem Cell Research & Regenerative Medicine. That facility now houses 11 research teams and four core laboratories and is envisioned by USC as becoming a hub for the development of regenerative medicine in the Los Angeles region.

The Eli and Edythe Broad Center's four core labs are: the Stem Cell Core Facility, which maintains and distributes quality-controlled stocks of a large number of embryonic stem cell lines, conducts training in human embryonic stem cell culture and develops and validate new protocols for stem cell growth and manipulation; the Flow Cytometry Core Laboratory, which provides researchers with access to instruments that enable them to sort stem cell populations into subgroups; the Imaging Core Facility, which enables scientists to take high-resolution pictures of stem cells to better identify molecules and structures within cells and to trace the fate of cells as they migrate, divide and differentiate within tissues; and the High Throughput Screening Facility, an operation aimed at discovering small, drug-like molecules that interact to modulate signaling pathways that control stem cell behavior.
 

 
RELATED STORIES:
 
Staking a claim
Growing stem cell market entices Big Pharma to harness its power for drug screening, toxicity testing
   
Blazing the trail
Backed by strong venture capital funding, biotechs organize around promise of stem cell research
   
ONLINE BONUS:
Tools of the trade
Life science tool providers provide constant support to ever-evolving stem cell research community   

To view all of the content from our three-part series on stem cell research, click here. 
 
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