First successful stem-cell surgeon speaks at Sac State

Leia Ostermann

Dr. Martin Birchall, who led the research team that performed the first stem cell cures, is

lecturing on stem cell research and curing respiratory disease at 6 p.m. on Thursday in

the University Union Ballroom.

The process of using stem cells to cure diseases and repair damaged organs is called regenerative medicine, said Laurel Hefferman, professor of biology at Sacramento State. Birchall has used regenerative medicine, particularly stem cells, to engineer complete respiratory organs. His goal is to replace the larynx, a portion of the breathing tract, which can be destroyed by trauma or cancer.

Birchall’s stem cell research helped cure a 30-year-old mother with a damaged respiratory system caused by tuberculosis, and an 11-year-old boy who was born with a narrowed airway. Both were given airway implants to normalize their lung function and both operations were successful.

Although stem cell research is still in the beginning stages of development, there is a lot of theoretical research and clinical trials going on, Heffernan said. The goal of all this research is to cure diseases.

Most researchers tend to focus on the steps of their research, but Birchall’s talk focuses on explaining stem research and its medical implications, said Thomas Peavy, biology professor and academic coordinator.

“Doctors are even researching clinical applications for curing spinal cord injuries,” he said. “Stem cell research introduces personalized medicine and so many potential opportunities.”

Personalized medicine is linked to stem cell research, Peavy said, it is all about repairing the body by taking cells from one part of the body and making them function differently in another part of the body. Skin cells taken from the hand can be reverted back to stem cells, without a specific function, and then induced to operate in another part of the body and perform a different function.

“Stem cell research is about manipulating cells and ultimately using them for medical therapies,” Peavy said.

The common misconception, Peavy said, is that stem cell research means figuring out how to make clones. He said that cloning is often the first thing people think of when stem cells are discussed, but this is furthest from what stem cell research actually means.

Genetic manipulation of cells is done to help them to function different, not grow a whole new person, Peavy said.

Peavy said the field of stem cell research has moved in two different directions; adult stem cell research in order to perform personalized medicine, and embryonic stem cell research, creating cells in order to manipulate them.

The stem cell researchers who have come to Sac State are mostly focused on adult stem cell research, not embryonic stem cells, so the goal is to help medicine progress, not open debate over the ethics of using stem cells, Peavy said.

The real goal is education for everyone and fascinating them with the progress of modern medical technologies, Heffernan said.

The lecture series is sponsored by U.C. Davis and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which gave a $1.4 million grant to Sac State to fund stem cell research. Ten students are awarded the grant per year and given the opportunity to work at the U.C. Davis stem cell research center.

“We are very lucky to be collaborating with the stem cell center at U.C. Davis and to be able to host four stem cell talks from top end researchers,” Peavy said. “We need people to understand these things and know the technologies of regenerative medicine therapy.”

The grant also covers education for the campus by funding four speakers a year to talk about regenerative research. Jan Nolta, the director of the U.C. Davis stem cell research center, helps to coordinate with visiting researches so that travelling scientist, like Birchall, can speak to students and the community about this new form of medical therapy.

Last year the regenerative medicine lectures drew more than 200 people, from science and non-science majors, Heffernan said. She said these lectures are understandable to a broad audience but also detailed enough so that the information is relevant to studying scientists.

“This is not just about the research community but the whole community. If people don’t know what’s going on with a new technology, then it’s natural that they are afraid of it,” Peavy said. “There is always potential for people to be worried about these things they don’t understand but that’s why these talks need to happen.”

Leia Ostermann can be reached at [email protected]