The Baden-Württemberg Foundation is providing a total of 1.3 million euros in funding to two stem cell research projects from Ulm. The objective of the researchers working on these projects is to find out how adult stem cells can contribute to organ regeneration and wound healing.
In concrete terms, this involves two issues: Karl Lenhard Rudolph, Head of the Institute of Molecular Medicine at the Life Sciences Centre at Ulm University, is seeking to find out why the liver is unable to properly regenerate in the elderly or following liver damage. Karin Scharffetter-Kochanek, Medical Director of the Department of Dermatology and Allergology at Ulm University Hospital, is seeking to clarify why wounds and open ulcers in the lower legs do not heal effectively.
Open ulcers in the lower legs, for which the medical term is chronic venous ulcers, occur due to incorrect functioning of venous valves. The normal function of venous valves is to prevent the backflow of blood. When used blood can no longer be effectively transported due to defective venous valves, venous hypertension develops. This hypertension often leads to damage to the venous walls, inflammation and open wounds that fail to heal in 15 per cent of people affected. "The macrophages, which normally fight against inflammation, become hyperactive and produce substances that damage the connective tissue cells to an extent that they are unable to divide. This phenomenon also occurs as a result of ageing processes. "Cell division is crucial for wounds to heal effectively," explains Scharffetter-Kochanek.
"In cooperation with the Department of Transfusion Medicine at Ulm University Hospital, we are trying to find out whether mesenchymal stem cells (precursor cells of connective tissue cells, for example) are able to down-regulate hyperactive immune cells and stop the inflammatory process," said Scharffetter-Kochanek explaining her team's research that is aimed at elucidating the basic mechanisms of wound healing and the ageing processes.
Under normal circumstances the liver is an organ that regenerates well. However, its regenerative capacity decreases due to liver inflammation or increasing age partly because of the reduced activity of stem cells, amongst other factors. Leibniz prizewinner Karl Lenhard Rudolph is aiming to identify the molecular mechanisms that impede the function of stem cells in organs, muscles and the brain.
"We use a screening approach to find out which genes are responsible for the reduced function of stem cells. In preliminary investigations, we have identified a gene that activates a protein when DNA or chromosome ends (telomers) are damaged. This particular protein also impedes the proper function of stem cells," explains Karl Lenhard Rudolph. "We hope to obtain further insights into these processes and subsequently search for a compound that might inhibit the damaging protein and hence enable the regeneration of organ or muscle cells in diseased or elderly patients."
The research funds for these projects come from the Baden-Württemberg Foundation's "Adult Stem Cells 2009" programme which is providing ten projects at eight universities and university hospitals with more than six million euros over a period of five years.
The development of cell-based, regenerative therapies is one of the most innovative fields of biomedical research. For example, such therapies exploit the potential of stem cells in order to restore the loss of organ function or replace damaged tissue. Therefore, stem cell research is of great importance for the economic branch of regenerative medicine, which is well represented in Baden-Württemberg, according to information given by the Baden-Württemberg Foundation on its homepage.The Foundation further highlights that its earlier “Adult Stem Cells” programme has produced promising results and that junior researchers in this field have been integrated into the Baden-Württemberg university landscape. The foundation has put in place the follow-up “Adult Stem Cells 2009” programme to further advance previous developments and ensure continuous stem cell research funding in Baden-Württemberg.The new programme will continue to fund basic research, and has also been extended to include research on so-called tumour stem cells as well as research focusing on the development of targeted therapies. The programme will fund research on stem cell research, the self-preservation of tumour stem cells, the influence of epidermal stem cells on wound healing, the regeneration of neuronal stem cells as well as other areas.