By David Lim
Genetic researcher and UCLA professor Richard Gatti gave an introduction on stem cells in Ahmanson Lecture Hall during break Oct. 19, drawing on his more than 40 years of experience in the field.
Gatti, the Rebecca Smith Distinguished Professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UCLA, focuses on researching DNA repair disorders. He was one of several research scientists contacted by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a governmental organization that funds stem cell research programs, to participate in an outreach program in California high schools promoting stem cell awareness, Christine Sull ’12 said.
Sull interned at Gatti’s lab this summer and set up the assembly.
Gatti contacted Sull and offered to speak about stem cell science on Oct. 5, Stem Cell Awareness Day, but the school couldn’t accommodate him that day, so the date was pushed back to Oct. 19.
Gatti was involved in one of the first experimental bone marrow transplants in 1968. Bone marrow cells are the only kind of stem cell used widely as a therapy today.
“We had a little child with a fatal disease and we figured out the next step was to give a bone marrow transplant,“ Gatti said.
The patient survived the initial immune reaction from his sister’s marrow cells and was completely cured, Gatti said. Hundreds of thousands of patients have been successfully treated with similar procedures since.
“That infant sends me a Christmas card very year and that’s your reward for doing something that really translates to patients,” Gatti said.
Gatti brought up ethical issues that stem cell researchers have to deal with.
“Do you want to destroy an embryo to save a person? Big ethical question,” Gatti said.
In his presentation, Gatti described different kinds of stem cells and the modifications necessary to create induced pluripotent stem cells from regular skin cells. He said that iPS cells are a major breakthrough in stem cell research that allows researchers to use potent stem cells not derived from embryos and avoid ethical pitfalls.
He stated that there are only a few effective approved stem cell therapies due to problems with clinical use including the risk of cancer caused by the implanted cells. Bu he warned against “stem cell” peddled by “charlatans” over the internet that offer false hope to desperate patients.
“It’s a new field and there are very few stem cell therapies today,” Gatti said.
But stem cell science has come a long way since Gatti helped cure that first patient with a bone marrow transplant 40 years ago.
“When I look back, it was alchemy,” he said.