Working together, scientists from Oklahoma State University, the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation are advancing adult stem cell research to treat some of today’s most devastating diseases.
Under the umbrella of the Oklahoma Center for Adult Stem Cell Research (OCASCR), created with funding from the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, these scientists have amassed groundbreaking findings in one of the fastest growing areas of medical research.
“We have made exciting progress,” said OCASCR scientist Lin Liu, director of the Oklahoma Center for Respiratory and Infectious Diseases and director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Regenerative Medicine at Oklahoma State University.
“We can convert adult stem cells into lung cells using our engineering process in petri dishes, which offers the possibility to repair damaged lung tissues in lung diseases,” said Liu, whose research primarily focuses on lung and respiratory biology and diseases.
“Using our engineered cells, we can also reverse some pathological features. These studies give us hope for an eventual application of these cells in humans.”
Adult stem cells in the body are capable of renewing themselves and becoming various types of cells.
Until recently, stem cell treatments were largely restricted to blood diseases. However, new studies suggest many other types of adult stem cells can be used for medical treatment, and the Oklahoma Center for Adult Stem Cell Research was created to promote this branch of research.
Liu said the discipline provides hope for many ailments.
“What most fascinated me in stem cell research is the hope that we may be able to use stem cells from our own body; for example, bone marrow or fat tissues to cure lung diseases,” Liu said.
It is impossible to know exactly which diseases will respond to treatments. However, results of early experiments suggest many diseases should benefit from this type of research, including lung, heart, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, as well as cancer, diabetes and spinal cord injuries. The field is often referred to as “regenerative medicine,” because of the potential to create good cells in place of bad ones.
While the application of stem cells can be broad, Liu hopes that his TSET-funded work will help develop treatments for diseases caused by tobacco use.
“The goal of my research team is to find cures for lung diseases,” Liu said. “One such disease is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).”
COPD is the third leading cause of death in the country and cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD.
“Cigarette smoking is also a risk factor for another fatal lung disease, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), which has a mean life expectancy of 3 to 5 years after diagnosis,” he added.
There is no cure for COPD or IPF. The current treatments of COPD and IPF only reduce symptoms or slow the disease progression.
“Using OCASCR/TSET funding, my team is researching the possibility to engineer adult stem cells using small RNA molecules existing in the body to cure COPD, IPF and other lung diseases such as pneumonia caused by flu,” Liu said.
This is vital research, considering that more than 11 million people have been diagnosed with COPD, but millions more may have the disease without even knowing it, according to the American Lung Association.
Despite declining smoking rates and increased smokefree environments, tobacco use continues to cause widespread health challenges and scientists will continue working to develop treatments to deal with the consequences of smoking.
“We need to educate the public more regarding the harms of cigarette smoking,” Liu said. “My research may offer future medicines for lung diseases caused by cigarette smoking.”
Liu has been conducting research in the field of lung biology and diseases for more than two decades.
However, his interests in adult stem cell therapy began in 2010 when OCASCR was established through a grant with TSET, which provided funding to Oklahoma researchers for stem cell research.
“I probably would have never gotten my feet into stem cell research without OCASCR funding support,” he said. “OCASCR funding also facilitated the establishment of the Interdisciplinary Program in Regenerative Medicine at OSU.”
These days, Liu finds himself fully immersed in the exciting world of adult stem cell research and collaborating with some of Oklahoma’s best scientific minds.
“Dr. Liu and his colleagues are really thriving. It was clear seven years ago that regenerative medicine was a hot topic and we already had excellent scientists in the Oklahoma,” said Dr. Paul Kincade, founding scientific director of OCASCR. “All they needed was some resources to re-direct and support their efforts. OSU investigators are using instruments and research grants supplied by OCASCR to compete with groups worldwide. TSET can point to their achievements with pride.”
The Oklahoma Center for Adult Stem Cell Research represents collaboration between scientists all across the state, aiming to promote studies by Oklahoma scientists who are working with stem cells present in adult tissues.
The center opened in 2010 and has enhanced adult stem cell research by providing grant funding for researchers, encouraging recruitment of scientists and providing education to the people of Oklahoma.
“We are fortunate that the collaboration at the Oklahoma Center for Adult Stem Cell Research is yielding such positive results,” said John Woods, TSET executive director. “This research is leading to ground breaking discoveries and attracting new researchers to the field. TSET is proud to fund that investments for Oklahomans.”
Funding research is a major focus for TSET and it comes with benefits reaching beyond the lab. For every $1 TSET has invested at OCASCR, scientists have been able to attract an additional $4 for research at Oklahoma institutions, TSET officials said.
TSET also supports medical research conducted by the Stephenson Cancer Center and the Oklahoma Tobacco Research Center.
For more information, visit www.ocascr.org.