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VU joins cardiac stem cell consortium

BY: JESSICA PASLEY

10/16/2009 - Vanderbilt University Medical Center has been named one of the nine research hubs of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Progenitor Cell Biology Consortium, a seven-year, $170 million research initiative to develop the field of stem and progenitor cell tools and therapies.

Front row, from left, are Scott Baldwin, M.D., Antonis Hatzopoulos, Ph.D., and Jeffrey Rottman, M.D. Second row, from left, are Douglas Sawyer, M.D., Ph.D., Charles Hong, M.D., Ph.D., Michael Hill, Ph.D., and J.B. Atkinson, M.D., Ph.D. (photo by Joe Howell)

Front row, from left, are Scott Baldwin, M.D., Antonis Hatzopoulos, Ph.D., and Jeffrey Rottman, M.D. Second row, from left, are Douglas Sawyer, M.D., Ph.D., Charles Hong, M.D., Ph.D., Michael Hill, Ph.D., and J.B. Atkinson, M.D., Ph.D. (photo by Joe Howell)

Vanderbilt will receive about $1.2 million a year to study cardiac stem cells whose biological properties are poorly understood and investigate how disease affects their usefulness for therapeutic applications.

“This award places Vanderbilt on the forefront of stem cell research and heart regeneration,” said Antonis Hatzopoulos, Ph.D., associate professor of Medicine. “Vanderbilt is also part of the five clinical centers in the Cardiovascular Cell Therapy Research Network (CCTRN). Only two medical institutions in the country play leading roles in both the clinical and basic science arms of stem cell research.

“The parallel clinical and basic science studies create a unique environment for truly translational research,” said Hatzopoulos, director of the Vanderbilt portion of the project.

“This translational setting provides unique opportunities for novel discoveries.”

The award brings together experts from heart, lung, blood and technology research to create 18 multi-disciplinary teams of investigators whose goal is to identify and characterize progenitor cell lines, direct the differentiation of stem cells and progenitor cells to desired cell fates, and develop new clinical strategies to address the unique challenges presented by the transplantation of these cells.

There are three investigators involved in the Vanderbilt research team — Hatzopoulos, Doug Sawyer, M.D., chief of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, and Scott Baldwin, M.D., chief of the Division of Pediatric Cardiology and co-director of the Pediatric Heart Institute.

“The prospect of cell therapy as a strategy to repair organs such as the heart is very exciting,” said Sawyer. “At Vanderbilt, we are fortunate to be part of a number of studies, including clinical trials, in this arena.”

He applauded the NIH/NHLBI for committing enough resources to allow the field to “grow up.”

“Most grants from the NIH last four or five years, a very short time in the world of clinical and basic research. The benefits to having seven years of funding are enormous.”

Baldwin was encouraged by the NIH's recognition of Vanderbilt's unique approach to stem cell differentiation.

“Our group is not just focused on the stem cell itself, but the factors that are provided by the stem cell environment or 'niche' that might be required for successful differentiation and utilization as a therapeutic modality” said Baldwin.

“This project really is a combination of cell, molecular and developmental biological approaches, and involves both basic scientists as well as physician scientists in pediatric and adult medicine.”

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