January 30, 2001
MEDIA CONTACT: Marjorie Centofanti
PHONE: (410) 955-8725
"Every now and then a scientific discovery is powerful enough to change established thinking."
With a $58.5 million gift from an anonymous donor, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is launching an Institute for Cell Engineering (ICE), fostering research that not long ago would have been marked as science fiction. The new Instituteís scientists will focus on selecting, modifying and reprogramming human cells, molding them into therapeutic transplants for everything from Parkinsonís, ALS and diabetes to heart failure, stroke and spinal cord injury.
"Every now and then a scientific discovery is powerful enough to change established thinking," says William R. Brody, M.D., Ph.D., president of The Johns Hopkins University. "The recent groundbreaking research in stem cells has opened our eyes to ways cells might be used to regenerate tissues and perhaps, ultimately, entire organs. This research forms the basis for a bold new cross-disciplinary endeavor in cell engineering at Johns Hopkins."
"Pioneering stem cell research of such Hopkins scientists as John D. Gearhart and Curt Civin brought this into the realm of the possible just within the past few years," says Edward D. Miller, M.D., Dean/CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine. "Executive Vice Dean Elias Zerhouni then had the vision that by creating an intense, multidisciplinary research incubator, we could build on this foundation and take the next great leap forward, deciphering some of the fundamental mysteries of how cells go awry in disease and behave in transplants. He was able to convey to the donor the exciting potential of such a venture.
"The State of Marylandís funding of $23.8 million toward a new research building was critical in attracting the $58.5 million in private funding, because it allowed us to guarantee appropriate space for our investigators," Miller adds. "Itís a wonderful example of partnership between the public and private sector." The Institute for Cell Engineering (ICE) will occupy 40,000 square feet ó a third of a planned new basic research building to be completed in 2003. Until then, temporary laboratories will be made available.
"A tremendous amount of hype and hope surrounds cell engineering," says Zerhouni. "We donít want to over-promise ó much basic work in understanding cells lies ahead ó but we will intensely pursue this research because of its huge potential impact on human health."
While the Institute will advance Hopkinsí already strong program of embryonic stem cell research, scientists will extend that work into adult stem cells as a source of tissue. "In many devastating diseases and injuries, these cell replacement therapies offer the best hope for patients," says John D. Gearhart, Ph.D., whose team of scientists announced the discovery of the most basic human stem cells two years ago and who has, since then, been instrumental in defining the potential of these cells for international scientific and government audiences.
The Institute will have a core section for basic research and will include scientists from various departments to conduct translational research. Scientists with the Instituteís program highlighting basic cell immunology, for instance, hope to discover how to remove the characteristics of stem or other cells that trigger transplanted tissue rejection.
A particular focus on regeneration and repair of nerve tissue via stem and other engineered cells should help researchers develop specific therapies for Parkinsonís disease, spinal cord injury, stroke and other widespread neurological disorders, says Ted Dawson, M.D., Ph.D., who, with fellow neuroscientist Valina Dawson, Ph.D., heads the neuroregeneration program. "The Institute is rare," he adds, "in the extent of collaboration it will foster across disciplines. That in itself gives a landmark opportunity for fruitful research."
"One of our boldest areas of research will be cellular reprogramming experiments," says Zerhouni, "in which parts of the DNA of several cells can be modified to create novel cells with highly specialized and controlled functions."
Chronic and degenerative disorders are a target of this approach, including heart disease, diabetes and metabolic liver disease. "Yet weíre not fundamentally disease-driven," Zerhouni explains. "We want to serve as an incubator that will crack some fundamental mysteries. Other labs throughout Hopkins will translate that information into therapies. When research gets to a translational level, one that directly involves patient studies and large-scale therapy testing, this will be done in the relevant academic department. This arrangement, we feel, should promote the quickest safe transfer from bench to bedside."
Zerhouni acknowledges the controversies associated with research that manipulates human cells, notably stem cells, "but it is in the best interest of the public to have a not-for-profit, science-based institution like Hopkins take a leading role," he states. ICE is believed to be the first initiative of its kind at an academic center and the anonymous donor felt that Hopkins would be an ideal environment for a visionary and unique philanthropic contribution to a field of discovery with unprecedented potential.
The Institute will draw on both new recruits and existing departments for staff, with scientists cycling in and out of the Institute based on the state of their research, and will have a distinguished scientific advisory board to review the development and programs of the Institute.
In a letter to Hopkins faculty announcing the new Institute, Miller concluded: "Youíll be hearing much more about the formation of ICE in coming months Ė and I am sure our children and grandchildren will benefit from its fruits in the future."
The $58.5 million gift establishing the Institute is part of a larger planned commitment by the donor to the Johns Hopkins Institutions. Details will be announced at a later time.