In 2009, a $3.6 million grant by New York State Stem Cell Science (NYSTEM) established the Western New York Stem Cell Culture and Analysis Center at the University at Buffalo.
The establishment of this shared-use research facility allows access to critical equipment used not only by medical school faculty, but researchers in pharmacology, biology, chemistry, and engineering. The resulting collaborations between departments has resulted in the shared production of stem cells which allows the collaborators to advance their studies of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, autism, and other disorders.
“The importance of core facilities cannot be overstated, and grants to fund them are extraordinarily impactful,” said Dr. Michal Stachowiak, co-director of the facility and Professor of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo. “Core labs mobilize the entire university.”
Dr. Stachowiak said that before the core facility was established, his colleagues across disciplines were not writing grants for stem cell research—now they write many. This core facility initially supported by NYSTEM has resulted in new lines of inquiry and new grants the researchers would not have pursued otherwise. And although the NYSTEM grant for the facility itself has expired, other grants have enabled it to continue.
The core facility and new labs are also a boon for educating the next generation of scientists, as graduate students and postdocs staff the labs.
“When you create a lab, and you educate students in that lab, they will go and create their own labs, advance their own ideas, and educate more students,” said Dr. Stachowiak. “It creates a tsunami of research.”
Dr. Stachowiak’s own research, also partially funded by NYSTEM, uses recently developed technology called cerebral organoids, where stem cells are grown into “mini-brains” that resemble the developing human brain in its earliest stages.
“Thanks to stem cell research and the resulting organoids, we have beautiful insight into early brain development— how it is regulated and how it develops diseases,” said Dr. Stachowiak.
This new research technique led Dr. Stachowiak to make an important discovery: Although symptoms of schizophrenia usually appear in adolescence or young adulthood, the brain disease likely begins much earlier, toward the end of the first trimester of pregnancy.
The finding expands scientists’ understanding of this devastating disease, which Dr. Stachowiak says is much more common than most people realize – as many as 1-2 percent of people have symptoms of schizophrenia. Identifying the beginning of the disorder in the brain opens up the potential for early detection and treatment in utero, as well as shifting our understanding of schizophrenia, which was once considered a moral affliction.