Weill Cornell Launches New Stem Cell Center With $15 Million Grant

The Ansary Center for Stem Cell Therapeutics Brings Together World Class Team of Scientists to Delve Into Secrets of Stem Cells

May 12, 2004

New York, NY

The Board of Overseers of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City voted today to establish the new Ansary Center for Stem Cell Therapeutics. The unique Center will bring together a premier team of scientists to focus on stem cells the primitive, unspecialized cells thought to have an unrivaled capacity to form all types of cells in the body.

As part of Weill Cornell's Advancing the Clinical Mission Capital Campaign, the Ansary Center for Stem Cell Therapeutics is being created with a $15 million grant from Shahla and Hushang Ansary, prominent Houston philanthropists. Mr. Ansary is a Vice Chairman of Weill Cornell Medical College's Board of Overseers.

Vision of Ansary Center

The Ansary Center will help lead the way into 21st century medicine in this extremely promising area, said Dr. Antonio M. Gotto, Jr., Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Weill Cornell scientists and physicians are already world leaders in stem cell research, and Mr. Ansary's generous gift will help spur the creativity and collaboration of our scientists, as well as help attract the best and brightest young researchers in the field.

We are witnessing the birth of a new field of research that has tremendous potential for relieving human suffering, said Hushang Ansary. It's an exciting time, and we believe this prestigious Center will have a significant impact in the field.

Added Dr. David P. Hajjar, Executive Vice Dean for Research at Weill Cornell, This Center will help position Weill Cornell at the vanguard of stem cell and developmental biology research in this country.

Dr. Shahin Rafii, a noted authority in the field and the recently named Arthur Belfer Professor of Genetic Medicine at Weill Cornell, will direct the new Center.

Stem Cells: Nature and Potential

Stem cells are immature cells that can differentiate into all types of cells in the body, from heart-beat-generating cardiac cells to insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Embryonic stems cells, or those that exist in the ball of cells that forms shortly after sperm and egg meet, are thought to have enormous potential when it comes to developing into different types of cells. Adult stem cells which can be found in umbilical cord blood, bone marrow, blood, and other parts of the body have tremendous potential as well.

The Ansary Center will take a synergistic approach to stem cell research and bring together scientists from different areas of biomedical research to solve complex problems. They hope to discover the wellspring of adult stem cells in the body and ways to manipulate stem cells to treat human illness. In particular, the researchers hope to understand the regulation of cells that give rise to blood vessels, to insulin-producing cells in the pancreas (which are damaged in diabetics), and to neurons of the brain and nervous system.

Stem cells have long been known to reside in the blood and bone marrow, and are responsible for churning out the massive number of red blood cells and infection-fighting white blood cells the body needs, said Dr. Rafii, who is also Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology-Oncology at Weill Cornell. Now scientists are starting to find organ-specific stem cells nearly everywhere, which opens up novel strategies to regenerate adult organs.

Stem Cell Innovations at Weill Cornell

Dr. Rafii has made a number of advances in stem cell research, including the discovery of vascular stem cells that are present in the adult bone marrow and can contribute to wound healing and tumor revascularization. In addition, his group has found that stem cells in bone marrow must move from one location to another before they can mature and begin regenerating new cells. He and his team also identified the growth factors that facilitate this movement, which could help cancer patients recovering from the severe blood- and immune-suppressing effects of chemotherapy.

In other innovative research on stem cells at the Medical College, Dr. Neeta Roy, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience, recently isolated neural progenitor cells from fetal spinal cord tissue, which could one day be used to treat damaged nerves and brain tissue. And Dr. Jay Edelberg, Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Greenberg Division of Cardiology and in Cell and Developmental Biology, is studying the potential use of bone-marrow precursor cells to mend damaged and aging hearts.

From Bench to Bedside

It is hoped that stem cells can one day be used to replace cells that are dead or damaged by illness including for heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and Alzheimer's disease, said Dr. Rafii.

While researchers at the Ansary Center will focus on many types of stem cell research, they particularly hope to find ways to boost the growth of adult stem cells.

For example, for decades it was nearly etched in stone that certain organs including the brain, heart, and ovaries had a finite number of cells. If damaged or used up, it was thought these organs had no way of generating new cells. In recent years, tantalizing new evidence has suggested that hibernating stem cells may be lurking inside these and other organs.

If we can find a way to stimulate these cells, either in the laboratory or in the body, we could deliver large amounts of a patient's own stem cells as a treatment, said Dr. Rafii. Such cells could be used to enhance brain recovery after stroke, accelerate wound healing in diabetics, and regenerate heart muscle after a heart attack.

Adult stem cells could also have the potential to be used in gene therapy.

Such cells could be genetically altered to carry therapeutic 'payloads' that might destroy the blood vessels supplying tumors, said Dr. Ronald Crystal, a pioneer in gene therapy and Chairman of the Department of Genetic Medicine at Weill Cornell. Such genetically altered cells might also be used to reverse tissue injury in heart attack, stroke, liver damage, or heart disease-damaged arteries.

The Ansary Center will also create a rigorous environment where scientists from various disciplines will collaborate on finding tissue-specific cell signals that help regulate and promote the survival of adult stem cells. This information could be used to find or design drugs that could boost stem cell growth or differentiation.

The Center will function in accordance with all Federal regulations regarding the use of adult, fetal, and embryonic stem cells.

Hushang Ansary

Iranian-born Hushang Ansary is a prominent Houston philanthropist, active in business and civic affairs. He is Chairman of Parman Capital Group, a privately held global investment enterprise. Mr. Ansary is a trustee of the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation and a founding member of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. Mr. Ansary has been a member of Weill Cornell's Board of Overseers since 1998. He was elected a Vice Chairman in 2004.

Hushang Ansary is a recipient of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Award for Corporate Citizenship and of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

Mr. Ansary is a former Iranian Finance and Economic Minister, Chairman/CEO of National Iranian Oil Company, and Ambassador to the United States.