Researcher talks Stem Cell Science in Western NY

Richard M. Gronostajski PhD

Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Professor of Biochemistry
Director of the Genetics, Genomics & Bioinformatics Graduate Program
Director, Western New York Stem Cell Culture and Analysis Center (WNYSTEM)

The biology of adult neural stem cells is like a black box. While these stem cells have the ability to make new neurons in the brain throughout a person’s lifetime, there is currently only a very limited scientific understanding of how they work.

That’s what Dr. Richard Gronostajski at the University at Buffalo is trying to change. In his lab, he is working to understand the signals that make these adult neural stem cells turn into one of the three major types of brain cells—or not.

If scientists could better stimulate stem cells to become certain types of neurons, they would then be able to address deficiencies in the brain caused by strokes or neurodegenerative diseases including multiple sclerosis, ALS and Parkinson’s, among other disorders.

“We want to learn how to manipulate neural stem cells, so they can eventually be used for therapies,” said Dr. Gronostajski.

Dr. Gronostajski and his team specifically study the genetics of these cells. They have discovered two genes that together are essential for the multiplication and differentiation of neural stem cells into specific types of brain cells. The hope is if they could stimulate the expression of these genes in the adult brain, the stem cells could then aid in repairing damage to the brain, and cure diseases where there’s been damage to nerves.

This exciting research has been facilitated by grants from the New York State Stem Cell program (NYSTEM), funded by the NYS Department of Health, including the creation of the Western New York Stem Cell Culture and Analysis Center (WNYSTEM).

This shared facility for stem cell research has enabled not only Dr. Gronostajski‘s work, but that of dozens of other researchers at UB and beyond. The researchers based at the facility help investigators who haven’t worked with stem cells before to produce them for their own research specialties.

“We’re making human models for disease for which there have never been models to study therapeutic strategies,” Dr. Gronostajski said about research happening at WNYSTEM.

Dr. Gronostajski focuses primarily on basic science research, which is early stage research seeking answers to questions about the biology of stem cells. He says a researcher must typically generate at least 10-20 new scientific ideas before figuring out the right direction that will allow them to address specific diseases and pursue new therapies. But many funders, including the National Institutes of Health, are moving away from basic science research to later-stage projects with more immediate potential for commercialization. NYSTEM is helping to fill that gap in New York.

“You have to understand how systems work first, in order for researchers to do intelligent translational research,” said Dr. Gronostajski.  “It’s incumbent on the state, if they want to have more new therapies coming out, to fund more basic research.”