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Supervisors In Tissue Repair

March 01, 2006

For years, it was believed that adult stem cells, under conditions of reduced oxygen, such as that found in victims of a heart attack or stroke, acted as building blocks by constructing new passageways for blood to bypass damaged tissue. However, a new study by a team of University of Virginia (UVA) researchers suggests stem cells act as construction supervisors, directing the work of other cells, rather than doing the heavy lifting themselves.

“Our findings indicate a new understanding of the role played by adult stem cells,” said Thomas Skalak, chairman of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, who along with his colleague Gary Owens, professor of molecular physiology, is leading the research team. “It’s a shift from a building role to a signaling role, orchestrating the repair and growth of damaged tissue.”

The research team’s findings suggest a new tack in the search for therapies for heart disease and peripheral artery disease.

“Our findings point to an alternative to the big pharma strategy of searching for blockbuster drugs,” Mr. Skalak said. “Instead, they suggest that a strategy of harnessing the body’s own reparative mechanisms could be more effective.  Blockbuster drugs have been single molecules that target a single process, but the adult stem cells we studied  appear to coordinate several processes in repair and growth, which single molecules have not been able to do.”

The research team’s results are published in a recent issue of the peer-reviewed journal Circulation Research.

The study was supported by a Bioengineering Research Partnership grant and a MD/PhD Training grant to UVA from the National Institute of Health’s Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

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