The Power of Stem Cell Biology in LSI

The Power of Stem Cell Biology in LSI

by Alan Saltiel  

Mary Sue Coleman Director of the Life Sciences Institute 

It seems that almost every day there is something in the popular media or scientific press about stem cells. The political, ethical, competitive, commercial and scientific issues are constantly in the news, stirring up controversy, disagreements and uncertainty. With all this attention, you might conclude that our decision in 2005 to become the home of the U-M Center for Stem Cell Biology was a strategic choice to stay on top of trendy science. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The LSI is about harnessing the power of cross-disciplinary interactions. Getting to the source of that power requires more than casual or informative interactions among scientists from different disciplines. It requires deep engagement in the big questions. Early in LSI’s history, we created the Centers for Chemical Genomics and Structural Biology to catalyze collaborations across the boundaries of chemistry, biology, physics and computation. Many scientists across the campus are now engaged under the auspices of these centers, exploring the structure and function of biological systems in ways they could never have done on their own.

The same is true for stem cell biology. Understanding how, when and why stem cells choose their fate involves the most fundamental questions in genetics, cell biology, physiology, developmental biology, engineering and many other disciplines. Of the four faculty members who have already joined the center, each has a unique approach and perspective, and uses a different system to get at these issues. Yukiko Yamashita and Cheng-Yu Lee are exploiting the power of fly genetics to learn about how stem cells decide whether to replicate or turn into neurons or other specialized cells. Sean Morrison and Ivan Malliard use mice as a model system to study how blood forming stem cells respond to signals that instruct them to begin the complex process of blood formation. We expect that the Center for Stem Cell Biology will bring these scientists together with other investigators to spark new ideas, open our investigators to different approaches and use new tools to make important new discoveries, even in fields only remotely connected to stem cells.

Of course, we are also keenly motivated by the promise that stem cells hold for understanding and treating disease. As noted elsewhere in this issue, stem cell research is vital for our progress in helping those with diabetes, cancer and neurodegenerative disease. And, it is important to work in all areas of stem cell biology to achieve that progress. Until federal and state policy is enlightened, we and our donors will continue to support work with both adult and embryonic stem cells.

In the storm that lately characterizes the field of stem cell research, we are proud to provide a necessary, nurturing, safe haven for this work at U-M. But, it is the promise of stem cell biology for sparking discovery at disciplinary crossroads that makes it the right choice for LSI and has me pumped for the future.

August 2007