Stem cell skeptics have been asking for years, where are the cures?

Well, stick around. Spectacular cures may be coming soon, and they have a University of Michigan connection.

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Dr. Eva Feldman, director of the University of Michigan’s A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute, appeared with the billionaire industrialist at the World Stem Cell Summit to announce the first clinical trial of stem cell transplants to treat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

And Sean Morrison, director of the UM Center for Stem Cell Biology, spoke of research under way at his lab to target cancer stem cells for more effective cancer treatment.

“It’s an exciting time to be here in Michigan if you are a medical scientist,” Taubman told the Stem Cell Summit crowd. “We are making important discovereies and moving research from the bench to the bedside.”

That starts with Feldman’s project, now under way at Emory University in Atlanta. So far, six ALS patients who can no longer walk have received stem cell injections. This month, if Emory’s Safety Monitoring Board approves, another round of injections will begin.

Feldman described in detail how pluripotent stem cells, which can grow into any type of human cell, are harvested from a microscopic human blastocyst at five days after sperm and egg come together. If the blastocyst reaches 14 days’ gestation, it’s full of progenitor cells — cells that ‘know’ they want to become a nerve cell or a muscle cell or a blood cell. Those are useful in therapy too.

Stem cells offer real hope for cures in neurological diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, Feldman said.

Her major area of research is ALS, in which the large nerve cells in the brain and spine become diseased, so muscles can’t move. Victims gradually lose the ability to move and speak, and eventually die when the nerves powering their breathing reflex fail — all while their brains are still fully functioning. Scientists still don’t know what causes ALS, but it’s hoped that injecting stem cells into the diseased spine will help it regenerate healthy nerve cells. The injections have worked well in lab rats, Feldman said.

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In the study at Emory, each patient gets 10 injections of 50,000 stem cells each — still a practically microscopic injection — in a four-hour operation.

Feldman showed a CNN interview with the first patient two weeks after his injections, and he said he felt strength coming back.

Feldman is overseeing the study in her role as a consultant for Neuralstem Inc., which has patented the neural stem cells and the surgical procedures and devices used to inject them.

Morrison, meanwhile, spoke of his work in researching cancer stem cells, the small number of cancer cells thought to be in control of cancer’s out-of-control growth and its ability to spread around the body.

“Cancer cells hijack the replication and navigation mechanisms normally used by stem cells,” Morrison said.

He said some nerve cell cancers and solid tumor cancers appear to be driven by cancer stem cells — meaning all scientists need to do to cure the cancer is to kill or neutralize the cancer stem cells. Other cancers, like melanoma, appear driven by other mechanisms, so that every single cancer cell is dangerous and can grow out of control.

Morrison was among the leaders of the drive to pass Proposition 2, the 2008 ballot measure that enshrined the right to experiment with embryonic stem cells into Michigan’s constitution. He said legal battles remain over stem cells, which shows “you can’t ever let your guard down, especially with such a motivated adversary.”

Taubman also pointed out that of Michigan’s original seven major party candidates for governor, five were against embryonic stem cell research and two were in favor. “The two who were in favor both won their primaries, so you can vote confidently for either the Republican or the Democrat and know that you are voting in favor of medical science,” Taubman said. “Of course, when that inevitable day comes when stem cell cures become a reality, the debate will be over.”

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