Stem cell research is the future of clinical biology, says Nobel laureate

Thiruvananthapuram, Nov 6:  Stem cell advancements in the future may help address some of the key problems in clinical medicine and disease treatments, including shortage of transplant organs, according to Nobel laureate Prof Ferid Murad.

It may be possible in the years to come to grow transplantable tissues and organs in the laboratory from cells harvested from the patients themselves, said Prof Murad in a lecture delivered at the two-day international symposium on nitric oxide organized by the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology.

Prof Murad, who found that Nitric Oxide (NO) is a signaling molecule in the cardiovascular system causing the dilation of blood vessels, shared the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery.

Currently a professor at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, George Washington University, the 79-year-old continues to work on clinical applications of research into the nitric oxide and cyclic guanosine monophosphate (GMP, another messenger molecule) signaling pathways.

Stem cell research is one of many areas where nitric oxide has been found to play a significant role. It is known to impact stem cell differentiation and proliferation, a fact that can be of immense clinical importance in the future, Prof Murad believes.

“I think a day will come when we take a sample of tissue from a patient, isolate stem cells and induce their differentiation, construct healthy tissues in the laboratory and give them back to the patients.” That will potentially decrease the need for organ transplants and other donors, he said.

Since the first discovery of the biological applications of Nitric Oxide in the late 1970s there has been a proliferation of research in the area. “There are now at least a 130,000 or more research publications on nitric oxide; that’s about 20 or 30 papers a day”, and it’s impossible to keep pace with all the developments, he said.

Nitric oxide is unique as a messenger molecule, being a gas and a free radical with an unshared electron in its outer shell which makes it very reactive. Biological processes and diseases with NO participation include neurotransmission, memory and stroke, glaucoma, blood pressure, inflammation, arthritis, nephritis, asthma, allergy, septic shock, platelet aggregation, hormone secretion and gene regulation.

“This is a very exciting field, and it’s far from over. There’s so much more opportunity here,” Prof Murad said. He explained some of the medically significant developments from NO research, including the discovery that arginine supplements and diet rich in nitrates and nitrites can be beneficial for patients with hypertension, diabetes, artherosclerosis and tobacco use-related metabolic diseases.

There are indications that Viagra, a drug prescribed for erectile dysfunction in adults, could also be used successfully to treat premature and underweight newborns suffering from pulmonary hypertension. The drug affects NO production in the body and can be an effective substitute for the very expensive nitric oxide inhalation treatments that are currently given to ill babies.

There is no molecule in the body that has as many capabilities as NO which acts as extracellular messenger, intracellular messenger, regulator and even hormone, Prof Murad said.

Even plant biologists are excited about it, he said, after recent discoveries that plants release NO for faster healing of external wounds, just like animals.

Prof Murad also believes that NO is one of the molecules present at the beginning of life on Earth. It is a hypothesis he would like to prove, which could possibly win him “another trip back to Stockholm”.

He believes that the first life forms emerged in the deep crevices of the ocean surrounded by nutrients, toxic substances, free radicals and transition metals. The cleverest of the early organisms developed mutations and pathways to neutralize the toxins which became messenger molecules to transmit information.

“The molecules that were messengers at that point, the very first messengers, had to be very simple molecules, not proteins and peptides, but simple calcium, phosphates, carbon monoxide hydrogen sulphide and nitric oxide,” he said, admitting that it would be hard to prove the hypothesis given the difficulty of replicating the conditions in the laboratory.

On the second day of the symposium, Prof Murad gave away awards to the best posters at the symposium.  KSCSTE Executive Vice President Prof V N Rajasekharan Pillai, RCGB’s Prof C C Kartha and symposium Organising Secretary Dr Priya Srinivas spoke at the valedictory function.

Sessions on Wednesday covered nitric oxide’s functions in reproduction biology, infection and immunity and neurobiology. Speakers included Prof. Arthur L. Burnett, (The Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland), Prof Ferric C. Fang, (University of Washington, USA), Dr Survo Chatterjee (AU-KBC Research Centre, Chennai) and Dr Anna George(NII, New Delhi) and Prof T Ramasarma (IISc Bengaluru).

RGCB hosted the international conference in partnership with the Srinivasa Ramanujan Institute for Basic Sciences (SRIBS), a capacity building initiative of the Kerala State Council for Science Technology and Environment (KSCSTE).

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