FOR RELEASE: Sept. 28, 2006

GALVESTON, Texas — A $500,000 grant from the Cullen Foundation will support neurological stem cell research at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston by funding the purchase of an advanced microscope and supporting a postdoctoral fellow who assists in the studies to optimize stem cell therapy.

The grant supports the innovative research of Dr. Ping Wu, a faculty member in UTMB’s Marine Biomedical Institute and Department of Neuroscience and Cell Biology. Wu’s efforts are part of the multi-institutional neurological research collaborative Mission Connect. She is working to utilize stem cell technology in animal models to develop new therapeutic approaches for neurological trauma and illness, like brain and spinal cord injuries, Lou Gehrig’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Stem cells — early cells that divide and form different kinds of cells — may one day be implanted in people with such afflictions to replace damaged cells and restore mobility, as well as memory and other brain functions.

Stem cell therapy would benefit millions of people who have neurological injuries or diseases. For example, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, approximately 11,000 new spinal cord injuries are reported in the United States each year, and some 230,000 people live with the effects of damaged spinal cords nationwide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that, as a result of traumatic brain injury, 80,000 to 90,000 U.S. citizens are living with long-term or lifelong disabilities. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — is the most common adult motor neuron disease, affecting some 30,000 Americans, based upon ALS Association records. Alzheimer’s disease, the age-related brain disorder that gradually leads to behavioral and personality changes, memory loss and impaired thinking abilities, affects up to 4.5 million people in the United States, and 11.3 million to 16 million are projected to be diagnosed by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

To improve the lives of these people, Wu is researching how to ensure the survival of stem cells transplanted in the brain and spinal cord and how to coax the cells to interact with surrounding neurons, or nerve cells. The microscope purchased by the Cullen Foundation’s grant will help her monitor the progression of stem cell therapy experiments in her laboratory. Known as a confocal microscope, the instrument filters out-of-focus fluorescent light as it scans lasers across a specimen, creating thin-sliced images. Researchers can view fine structures and detailed interactions between grafted stem cells and surrounding host cells in three-dimensions when scanning these thin sections.

In addition to the microscope, the Cullen Foundation’s support of a postdoctoral fellow position for Wu’s research team will augment the group’s ability to extract valuable data from the stem cell study. The postdoctoral fellow, Louis Ojeda, recently earned his Ph.D. degree and is playing a key role in finding ways to increase the survival rates of transplanted cells, ensuring that stem cells integrate properly with surrounding neurons and studying the potential long-term functional recovery following stem cell therapy.

UTMB President John D. Stobo said the Cullen Foundation’s contribution will significantly advance neurological recovery research at the academic health center. “The Cullen Foundation’s gracious support will make certain that Dr. Wu and her research team can pursue innovative studies that may someday reverse the effects of neurological illness and injury,” Stobo said. “We’re grateful to the foundation for sharing our desire to push forward the frontiers of biomedical knowledge and pioneer new approaches to improving human health.”

Wu, the John S. Dunn Distinguished Chair in Neurological Recovery, said she appreciated the interest the Cullen Foundation has shown in her stem cell research. “I want to thank the Cullen Foundation for helping equip me with state-of-the-art resources and personnel that will be needed for this research endeavor to succeed. The Cullen Confocal Microscope and Cullen Postdoctoral Fellow position are very welcome additions to this program.”

The Cullen Foundation has committed more than $800,000 to UTMB since 1974. The foundation, which gives primarily to education, the arts and health care in the Houston metropolitan area and Texas, was established in 1947 by Houston philanthropists Hugh Roy and Lillie Cullen.
The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston
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