Harvard Stem Cell Institute Sees Growth

At its founding eight years ago, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute had fewer than ten principal faculty members, according to Benjamin D. Humphreys, co-director of the HSCI Kidney Program. Today, that number has ballooned to more than 80.

In the past decade, Harvard has increasingly poured resources into groundbreaking research in one of the largest collections of stem cell research labs in the country.

According to HSCI co-director Douglas A. Melton, a professor in the stem cell and regenerative biology department, there are more than 800 Harvard affiliates in stem cell science scattered throughout roughly 80 laboratories. The largest concentration of stem cell researchers are located in Harvard’s Sherman Fairchild Building, which reopened in August of 2011 after it underwent a two-year demolition and reconstruction project to accommodate the stem cell and regenerative biology department.

In the past decade, Harvard has focused on centralizing this research with the creation of HSCI and the stem cell and regenerative biology department.

HSCI consists of scientists and practitioners interested in stem cell research from all over the Harvard community, including the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the medical school, and 11 teaching hospitals and research institutions including the Children’s Hospital Boston and the Massachusetts General Hospital.

So far, HSCI has given out more than $100 million to its researchers, according to Humphreys.

"[Harvard has] definitely made a tangible commitment to stem cell research," Humphreys said. "The results are that we are leaders in certain areas—certainly I can speak of the kidney—not even just in the U.S., but worldwide in terms of stem cell research in the kidney."

With important potential applications such as the generation of cells and tissues that could be used for cell-based therapies, stem cells are at the forefront of scientific research. Stem cells, which can differentiate into specific cell types, offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat some of the most serious diseases.

"What we’re doing at the HSCI Kidney Group is working collaboratively to identify new therapeutic strategies that will help slow disease progression," said Humphreys.

Still, Humphreys added that much more research is necessary before scientists can use stem cells to their fullest potential.

"Of course, making an artificial kidney would be one application," said Humphreys. "But truthfully, the kidney is so complicated that it’s second in complexity only to the brain in a number of cell types.... Making a truly artificial kidney in vitro is probably a long way off."

Regarding Harvard’s role in stem cell research, Humphreys said that he thinks Harvard should focus on developing and training the next generation of stem cell and regenerative medicine researchers who will make the big discoveries that will lead to transformative changes in the way doctors treat patients.

The human developmental and regenerative biology concentration, founded in 2009, will graduate its first class of more than 40 seniors this spring, according to Harvard College Facebook.

"[Harvard’s role is] to stimulate a dialogue through basic science and through public outreach by bringing people together, bringing our message out to other places to stimulate the discussion worldwide, and leading by example in order to fulfill the promises of this field," Humphreys said.

—Staff writer Cynthia W. Shih can be reached at