For the last 20 years, dozens of researchers at the University of Minnesota have helped plot the map toward new medical discoveries in the vast, uncharted domain of stem cells. Their time and talent, housed at the U of M Medical School’s Stem Cell Institute (SCI), began impacting studies around the globe—all focused on the use of stem cells in treating some of the world’s most common and incurable diseases.

“To the University of Minnesota’s credit, they took the long view and could see that this was something that would ultimately be meaningful from a translational perspective for improving human health,” said Brenda Ogle, PhD, SCI director. “They tried to understand the science, the perspectives of the community and they continued to invest, believing—and they were right—that ultimately, we would find a way to therapeutics.”

Understanding Stem Cells

Stem cells are the key to life. They are the master cells that lead the formation of our entire body, building specialized cells to create our skin, kidneys, lungs, blood or any of the hundreds of cell types in our bodies. Once stem cells divide to form those specialized cells, they go from being pluripotent, or versatile and able to make any type of cell, to multipotent, or only able to make some types of cells. So, as you age and your body becomes more fully formed, it loses its stem cells—but not all of them. That’s where the science of stem cells and healing begins.

The Beginning

The Medical School’s thought leadership on stem cells began in 1968. That year, Robert A. Good, MD, an immunologist with the Medical School, completed the world’s first successful bone marrow stem cell transplant between two humans who were not identical twins. His patient, whose own marrow was unable to produce blood cells needed to fight infection, suddenly began to manufacture healthy cells after Dr. Good transfused him with hematopoietic (blood cell-producing) stem cells.

By the 1980s, Philip McGlave, MD, built off this milestone, leading the way in using bone marrow from unrelated donors in a similar manner. It advanced hematopoietic stem cell transplantation globally. In Belgium, it caught the eye of Catherine M. Verfaillie, MD, who as a clinician, traveled to the Medical School to study hematopoietic stem cells under Dr. McGlave. She planned to stay just one year. But 20 years later, Dr. Verfaillie remained, intrigued and focused on finding new ways to use stem cells.

It was in the summer of 2000 when Dr. McGlave, former University President Mark Yudof, Senior Vice President for Health Sciences Frank Cerra, MD, and former Medical School Dean Alfred Michael, MD, worked with a group of Medical School department heads to make history. Together, they established the SCI—the first interdisciplinary, academic institute in the U.S.—and the team appointed Dr. Verfaillie as the first director.

Major Milestones

Since then, SCI researchers continue to uncover the secrets of stem cells. Their early focus was to understand the basic biology of stem cells—how they operate and how they can be programmed to become different types of cells. SCI faculty contributed substantially to understanding how a fertilized egg could give rise to all the cells of the human body by studying frog embryos, embryonic stem cell-derived blood cells, as well as bone marrow-derived blood stem cells.  

But in 2007, Japanese scientist and Nobel Prize winner, Shinya Yamanaka, PhD, revolutionized stem cell research by identifying how to create induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), using adult cells to provide an alternative to using human embryonic stem cells. At the SCI, Dan Kaufman, MD, Meri Firpo, PhD, and James Dutton, PhD, pivoted to lead iPSCs research. As early adopters of IPSCs technology, the SCI quickly developed a Stem Cell Core resource to disseminate this technology to its members and the University as a whole, a service that continues to be supported at the SCI by the Medical School.

As the number of SCI labs have grown, researchers began using this knowledge to program cells outside the body (in culture) to generate various cell types and determine their usefulness when studying normal function, diseases and therapeutic potential for regenerative medicine. Their research has been particularly directed toward heart and skeletal muscle regeneration, production of brain-like and retina-like model systems in a dish and the use of bone marrow-derived stem cells to recover damaged skin and neuronal function.

Beyond the research, SCI expanded its academic offerings, including the addition of the first Master’s program in Stem Cell Biology in the U.S., and a National Institutes of Health training grant for doctoral candidates. In 2018, it opened a Stem Cell Business Incubator, which is a fully equipped laboratory space available for early stage and expanding commercial enterprises using stem cell technologies.

Today, the SCI is still plotting the map, finding new routes and shortcuts to bigger discoveries in stem cell research. This interdisciplinary engine made up of 53 researchers from more than 22 departments across the University is pursuing numerous areas of research, using the most basic level of life to meet a promise.

“You know, 20 years is not that long, and it's staggering to see the scientific advancements that have occurred in such a short time span,” Dr. Ogle said. “What really gets me excited is to see the realization of a promise, and that promise is coming in the way of therapeutics, but it's also coming in the way of understanding human health and disease in a way that we couldn’t have without stem cells.”

This month, the SCI will kick-off a year-long celebration in honor of the institute’s last 20 years and the promise for the future. Part of the celebration includes two key events—the ENG-SCI Symposium on April 6, 2020, and the SCI’s Anniversary Celebration on Sept. 16, 2020. Learn more about the SCI and these events on their website.