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Director named to head human embryonic stem cell lab

by David Bauman - February 21, 2006

Dr. Ren-He Xu, a developmental biologist and expert in growing human embryonic stem cells lines, has been named director of UConn’s new human embryonic stem cell core laboratory.

Xu will also become a faculty member of the Department of Genetics and Developmental Biology at the Health Center, with a joint appointment at the Center for Regenerative Biology in Storrs.

His appointment is expected to boost the University’s efforts to launch a stem cell research program.

His principal research has explored the mechanisms that govern the early fates of human embryonic stem cells, and the self-renewal and differentiation of human embryonic stem cells.

Finding the factors that direct the human embryonic stem cells to become specific cells of clinical importance is a vital next step before new therapies can be developed.

It will be a goal of UConn’s human embryonic stem cell laboratory.

“I am very excited that we have been able to recruit Dr. Ren-He Xu,” says Dr. Marc Lalande, chair of the Department of Genetics and Developmental Biology.

“Dr. Xu’s hands-on expertise with hES (human embryonic stem) cells catapults us into a very strong position in establishing a world-class cell culture facility in the state of Connecticut,” adds Lalande, who also head’s the University’s stem cell working group.

The group is in the process of establishing a stem cell institute at UConn that will draw on faculty from both the Storrs campus and the Health Center to explore the potential of stems cells for treatment and cures for a range of degenerative diseases and injuries.

Xu is currently a senior scientist at the WiCell Research Institute, a private laboratory affiliated with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Institute’s scientific director, James Thomson, was the first researcher to isolate and reproduce embryonic stem cells.

The ability to grow stem cells in the laboratory and, someday, to direct them to become specific kinds of cells, has the potential to revolutionize transplant medicine and underpin lifelong treatment for a host of diseases, especially cell-based disorders such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and some forms of leukemia.

Successfully growing living cells outside the body generally requires providing the cells in a lab dish the right mix of nutrients, hormones, growth factors, and blood serum.

Until recently, those methods depended on animal cells, called feeder cells, and other animal products to keep the cells alive. Scientists worried that animal pathogens might infect human patients, if the cells were used for therapy.

Last year, a team led by Xu discovered a way to eliminate animal materials from human embryonic stem cell cultures.

Their work successfully replaced mouse feeder cells with synthetic human molecules and sustained human embryonic stem cells in an undifferentiated state.

The journal Science acknowledged the importance of Xu’s breakthrough by making it the subject of a special commentary, “Getting the Mice out of ES Cell Cultures.”

Xu received his M.D. at the Hengyang Medical College, in Hengyang, China; a master’s degree at Hunan Medical University in Changsha, China; and his Ph.D. at the University of Tokyo, Japan.

He also has been a postdoctoral fellow at the Cancer AIDS and Immunology Research Institute at Bar Ilan University, Israel, and a visiting fellow in the Laboratory of Biomedical Physiology with the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Xu has published more than 25 scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals.

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