Treena Arinzeh, a young professor who last year won a Presidential Award, the nation’s highest scientific honor, is bringing the promise of stem cell research one step closer to reality.
Arinzeh, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at NJIT, is researching the use of stem cells to induce bone repair. Her research will help diabetics whose impaired bones will not properly heal. She is using adult stem cells, in combination with allografts – donated bone tissue - to regenerate and repair the patients’ damaged bones. She is performing tests on diabetic animals, after which she’ll test patients at the clinical level.
Arinzeh is collaborating on the research with Sheldon L. Lin, MD, an assistant professor of orthopaedics at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Newark. Arinzeh has received a $100,000 grant from the Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation to support the team’s research.
“People suffering from diabetes have impaired bone healing,” Arinzeh said. “So the question is how to treat patients suffering from bone fractures and other defects that may not heal because they are also suffering from other disorders. We are looking at the current treatment for repairing bone defects, which is the use of allograft tissue, as well as newer treatments such as combining allograft with stem cells.”
One day soon, as a result of Arinzeh’s research, patients could be treated with off-the-shelf stem-cell therapies instead of drugs. In five years, say, a patient with a bone ailment would visit a doctor and be injected with a ready supply of stem cells. The cells would seek out the patient’s damaged bone tissue and begin to generate healthy tissue. After six months of treatments, the patient’s bone would begin to heal.
Arinzeh’s drive to advance the science of stem cell research has gained her national recognition. In the fall, she earned the highest honor given to a young researcher by President Bush: The Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.
What is it about Arinzeh’s research that has caught the eye of the White House?
First, she works with adult stem cells taken from adult bone marrow. So the controversy over the ethical implications of embryonic stem-cell research, in her case, is moot. An adult stem cell is an undifferentiated cell that builds and maintains tissues and organs, and which can renew itself through cell division. Stem cells are harvested from bone marrow, umbilical cords, the brain and spinal cord and other tissues. Adult stem cells also have a unique trait that lends them their magic: Under the right conditions, or given the proper signals, they have the ability to turn into different cell types.
Arinzeh is doing exactly that: developing signals, in the form of biomaterials, that will help adult stem cells turn into cells that, if injected into a diseased area of the human body, could regenerate damaged tissue.
Her research has also led to two major stem-cell discoveries: One showing that stem cells, when mixed with biomaterials known as scaffolds, can help regenerate bone growth; and another proving that stem cells taken from one person can be successfully implanted into another. A list of conditions for which stem-cell treatment holds promise grows almost daily: It now includes Parkinson’s, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer and traumatic brain injury.
“Treena’s research is unique because she has had success in crafting the right environment for stem cells to grow into other cells,” said William Hunter, chairman of the biomedical-engineering department at NJIT. “She is working in a brand-new world of medical therapy.”
Arinzeh’s first stem-cell breakthrough focused on developing scaffolds that aid stem cells. She performed animal studies on rats with bone defects; she also did cell-culture studies. Both showed that the biomaterials stimulated stem cells, producing new bone tissue and fully repairing the rats’ bones.
Arinzeh’s second stem-cell discovery proved that adult stem cells taken from one patient can be successfully implanted in another. Researchers originally thought such a transfer might be rejected. And it's not just defective bones that may be regenerated by stem cells. Arinzeh is now testing biomaterials that, in combination with stem cells, might also repair cartilage, tendon and neuronal tissues.
Her studies could lead to medical breakthroughs that would help a host of patients. Stem cell implantation could help cancer patients who've had large tumors removed from bone, Arinzeh says. In many such surgeries, patients lose their limbs. But if her method of implanting stem cells is shown to induce bone repair, amputation may not be necessary. Stem cells could also help patients suffering from osteoporosis, whose fractured bones can be regenerated by the cells.
Arinzeh has pushed the basic science of stem cells forward and, with her latest research on bone repair, is taking it yet another step.
“Treena has all the earmarks of a technical superstar,” says Mike Jaffe, a professor of biomedical engineering and chemistry at NJIT. “She’s at the leading edge of modern biology and if anyone can take stem-cell research forward, she can.”
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