The Jean I. and Charles H. Brunie Foundation will give Columbia's College of Physicians & Surgeons $3 million to support a stem cell research program to generate nerve cells for the treatment of neurological disorders, with an emphasis on stroke.
"Stem cell therapy holds great promise for helping scientists find cures for untreatable and debilitating diseases such as ALS, Parkinson's, juvenile diabetes, as well as brain injury from stroke," says Gerald Fischbach, executive vice president for Health and Biomedical Sciences and dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Columbia. "This gift will allow us to expand our research efforts at Columbia and turn that promise into viable therapies and treatment options."
Research has shown that adult and embryonic stem cells can renew themselves and become specialized cells, but embryonic cells seem to be more versatile, to date. Human embryonic stem cells, for example, are able to generate replacement cells for almost every type of tissue and organ, including the heart, the pancreas, and the nervous system, while adult stem cells have not been as proliferative. Embryonic or fetal cells are also less likely to be rejected by a recipient's immune system. Further, embryonic stem cells also grow better in cell culture systems than adult stem cells. Researchers, however, are looking at both adult and embryonic stem cells to repair or replace cells or tissues that are damaged or destroyed by many of our most devastating diseases and disabilities. Although stem cell therapy has yet to prove itself in humans, many animal models look promising. Columbia researchers have shown recently that adult stem cells from the bone marrow can help regenerate lost blood vessels and heart cells after heart attacks in rats.
The gift from the foundation will establish the Charles and Jean Brunie Fund for Cell Therapy in Brain Disease. The fund will support an accomplished stem cell biologist whose research projects will correspond with the stroke recovery program led by Randolph Marshall, associate professor of clinical neurology at the College of Physicians & Surgeons. The chosen investigator will employ human embryonic and adult stem cells to develop effective treatments for restoring brain function following injury, including stroke. Human embryonic stem cells will be obtained from approved existing lines under the current
National Institutes of Health guidelines. Other sources of stem cells include bone marrow, placenta, and endogenous brain stem cells, which may be induced to exert a more important role in stroke recovery given the proper cues.
Charles Brunie, founder and former chairman of Oppenheimer Capital, a New York City-based investment-counseling firm, became interested in the potential of stem cell research after his wife, Jean, suffered three debilitating strokes in 1997.
"It is an honor for me to provide an opportunity for Columbia to expand its stem cell research program and I am hopeful that the development of life-saving therapeutics for debilitating diseases is no longer out of reach," Brunie says.
"The Charles and Jean Brunie Fund for Cell Therapy in Brain Disease will benefit a number of areas of neurology," Marshall says. "This is an important opportunity for us to bring together basic and clinical neuroscientists to develop novel therapies for stroke and other neurological diseases."
"We, like Brunie, are extremely enthusiastic about the promise of embryonic stem cells for developing effective treatments for brain injury as well as various neurodegenerative diseases that are currently untreatable," says Timothy Pedley, Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Neurology and chairman of the Department of Neurology at the College of Physicians & Surgeons. "Columbia University is an ideal environment in which to establish the Brunie Fund for Cell Therapy in Brain Disease."
The stem cell program will be coordinated, along with similar research efforts at Columbia, by the Neural Stem Cell Advisory Committee, of which Brunie is a member. Recruitment efforts for the fund's supported scientist are currently under way.