Regenerative Medicine Utrecht

Stem cell therapy

Replacing damaged tissues is becoming a reality

Possible cures for various diseases. –Paul Coffer

Stem cells play an important role in maintaining and renewing tissues. They have the potential to restore function after tissue has been damaged, thereby treating or even curing the cause of degenerative disease. “For degenerative diseases it is necessary to replace damaged tissues either by transplantation or by stimulating a patient’s stem cells to do the job themselves,” says Paul Coffer, Principal Investigator and Co-Chair of the Regenerative Medicine & Stem Cells program in Utrecht. “Until recently, our understanding of stem cell biology was insufficient to realize this goal, but this has changed over the past decade. Now, it’s truly becoming reality.”

The paradigm of successful stem cell therapy is bone marrow transplantation. For the last half century, patients with leukemia, immune deficiencies or metabolic diseases have been treated by transplantation with ‘matching’ donor bone marrow containing stem cells. “This approach has become a relatively routine therapy in many cases,” explains Coffer, “and has demonstrated how successful stem cell therapy can be. Reproducing these successes for other tissues, either by stem cell transplantation or by kicking a patient’s own stem cells into action, will have dramatic consequences for a wide variety of diseases.”

Regenerative Medicine has considerable promise. Although it sometimes suffers from the negative effects of hype, it has recently demonstrated its potential in a variety of therapeutic areas. “Our understanding of stem cell biology has increased dramatically over the past decade and this has significant implications for the development of regenerative medicine therapeutic approaches,” Coffer continues, “One clear example is the ability to “reprogram” somatic cells to what are called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. This Nobel Prize winning achievement has demonstrated that it’s possible to routinely generate pluripotent stem cells from almost any adult tissue, and from any individual. Something that was unimaginable only 10 years ago.”

These iPS cells have a wide variety of therapeutic applications – from developing personalized therapies and drug testing, to potential tissue regeneration and transplantation. “This is just one example of many, highlighting how recent advances in the field of stem cell biology will impact on patients in the future,” adds Coffer, “With currently increasing international efforts in the various aspects of regenerative medicine, I’m sure that novel therapies, certainly for degenerative diseases, will become available in the next decade.”

Research is a constant learning experience; trying to solve the next piece of the puzzle. “For me personally, the fascination has always been with molecular and cell biology; trying to understand how a specific type of cell does its job, and how the components of each cell work together to this end. More specifically, my interest is focused on how the extracellular environment can modify a cell’s function, primarily through regulation of its molecular machinery. In the case of stem cells, this information will hopefully lead to insights that can be applied to the use of such cells in novel treatment strategies. Without a good, fundamental understanding of stem cell biology it will not be possible to fully harness their potential in clinical applications.”