The co-founder of the New York Stem Cell Foundation left a career in law and business for science. Her goal: A cure for diabetes
One day last week, at a lab in New York City, a heart cell was beating in a petri dish under a microscope. It had been made from a stem cell—a building block of the human body whose disease-fighting potential persuaded Susan L. Solomon to leave a career in law and business for medicine.
Ms. Solomon, 64, co-founded the New York Stem Cell Foundation, or NYSCF, in 2005. The foundation’s research institute has gained more notice lately for its breakthroughs in stem-cell research, including how to generate the cells and put them to work against ailments like mitochondrial disease and Parkinson’s disease.
In 1992, her son Ben, then 10 years old, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, which meant that his body was not producing insulin. People with the condition must constantly monitor their blood sugar and give themselves insulin injections. (Ben is one of her three sons, now grown. Her husband, Paul Goldberger, is an architecture writer.) So she joined the boards of diabetes associations and immersed herself in medical literature.
When the first stem cells were isolated from human embryos in the late 1990s, she thought that they had the potential to transform the understanding and treatment of diabetes, among other diseases. Stem cells are “blank” cells that are able to become more specialized cells, such as skin, brain or lung tissue. With diabetes, stem cells could be turned, in theory, into insulin-producing cells and then injected into a patient, whose body would then be able to produce insulin on its own.
From its earliest days, the use of stem cells has been controversial. The most versatile kind, called pluripotent stem cells, are taken from five- to seven-day-old embryos left over from infertility treatments; they are capable of becoming any type of cell in the body. Critics object that it is unethical to use these cells because harvesting them destroys the embryos. Other types of more limited stem cells may come from the umbilical cord of a newborn baby or from adult tissue.
Today, scientists have learned how to take small amounts of skin and blood and turn them into what researchers call induced pluripotent stem cells—which act like embryonic stem cells. Researchers at Ms. Solomon’s institute also continue to use embryonic stem cells. She emphasizes that the cells remain the standard against which other kinds of stem cells are measured and that the embryos from which they are extracted would otherwise be destroyed.
One major advance that Ms. Solomon hopes to see from stem-cell research is better drug testing. Current tests on animals are unreliable because human bodies may respond differently to medications. “We’ve cured Type 1 diabetes a million times in a mouse, but it’s irrelevant,” she says. “What is so remarkable about stem cells is it gives us a window into a living human being in real time.” And with stem cells created from a particular person’s skin and blood, scientists could potentially make a personalized “avatar” for that individual to see, in a petri dish, how he or she would respond to different treatments.
NYSCF has made progress in other areas. Using stem cells in 2012, its researchers developed a technique that prevents the transmission of mitochondrial disease from mother to child. Nearly one in 200 individuals carries mutant mitochondrial DNA, and the disease can lead to symptoms like stunted growth, kidney disease or neurological disorders. The technique involves transferring the nucleus from the egg cell of a mother who carries the disorder to a healthy egg cell to ensure the mutant DNA isn’t passed on.
Researchers are currently working to identify biomarkers for early Alzheimer’s disease. NYSCF is also supporting clinical trials to slow the progression of the neurodegenerative disease ALS and to treat age-related macular degeneration, which causes vision loss.
Nor has Ms. Solomon given up on her quest to help those with her son’s condition. “I’m not going to rest until we find a cure for Type 1 diabetes,” she says. “It’s going to happen in my lifetime. I believe it.” To read the full article click here.