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Tufts’ Garlick leads stem cell breakthrough

Published: Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Updated: Wednesday, October 7, 2009 08:10

Jonathon Garlick

Courtesy Joanie Tobin, Tufts Photography

Tufts researcher Jonathan Garlick and his team of scientists generated multi-dimensional tissue with human embryonic stem cells.

School of Dental Medicine Professor Jonathan Garlick succeeded earlier this year in growing three-dimensional tissues from human embryonic stem cells, making him and his team of scientists the first to achieve the pioneering research for the field.

Garlick's success in growing the tissues moves the team one step closer to its ultimate goal of using stem cells in regenerative medicine to replace damaged tissues in humans. The researchers also aim to use the tissue in drug testing, to expand the study of human diseases and to provide a viable alternative for test subjects in laboratories.

Garlick, who heads the division of cancer biology and tissue engineering at the Dental School, told the Daily that his research was "at the interface between stem cell technology and tissue engineering."

The researchers have already started to test drugs with adult stem cell-derived tissues, Garlick said, but the team has a long road ahead before the embryonic stem cells can be put to use.

"Tissues that we made need to be improved and optimized by making them even more like skin in humans," Garlick said. His team plans to study patterns and properties of disease in the lab to further its efforts.

Garlick's research has made significant contributions to the Dental School's reputation and the academic profile of the university in general thanks to a number of research collaborations across Tufts' schools, according to Gerard Kugel, associate dean of research at the School of Dental Medicine.

"It means helping put our research in the forefront [of] pioneering work done at our university," Kugel said. "It should translate into direct benefits for patients."

The lab's successful research will also open doors for scientists who work in the Dental School. Garlick's research "gives us some notoriety," Kugel said.

Garlick faced several conceptual problems during his research that surfaced from difficulties in "trying to recreate the incredible complexity that we find in human tissues," he said. In three-dimensional tissues, there are as many as 10 to 12 different kinds of cells that can interact with each other.

The scientists found it difficult to create an optimal cell environment so that each type of cell could thrive. "We outsmart the cells and try to allow them to develop in a microenvironment that we have to recreate using tissue engineering tools," Garlick said.

The lab also ran into problems with cell culture contamination, according to Anna Maione, a graduate student who works in the lab.

During the summer, "things tend to grow in the incubators and hoods," she said. "[We] had to throw out all of [the] experiments."

Garlick's achievements can in part be attributed to efforts of the Obama administration.

The U.S. government in July lifted the Bush administration's barriers to using embryonic stem cells, relaxing the guidelines on stem-cell use for the National Institute of Health (NIH) and creating potential for Garlick to make novel strides in his research.

"As an NIH-funded researcher, I was limited to using embryonic stem cells that were made before the year 2001, which meant that the Bush administration had imposed regulations that would forbid me from using embryonic stem cells that were made after that date," Garlick said. Eight-year old technology was used to isolate stem cells grown before 2001, according to Garlick.

Meanwhile, he said, other institutions that were not federally funded, including the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, could use newer embryonic stem cells and advance faster in their research.

Few laboratories are working to generate three-dimensional tissues from stem cells because of the complexity of the research. This may change now that the ban has been lifted, Garlick said.

The scientists received money to further their research as part of January's stimulus package. The Obama administration gave the money to scientists involved in the research in a number of two-year grants, so the lab will have to use it quickly, according to Kugel.

The grants represent a welcome shift from Bush administration policies, under which there were "a lot of cutbacks [and it was] hard to get funding," Kugel said.

Garlick is teaching a university seminar this spring that will touch on the many sides of stem cell use, including ethics and moral issues.

"Embryonic stem cells cause a lot of public controversy," Garlick said. "It's an opportunity to understand what these conflicts are."

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