Student’s Work in Stem-Cell Lab Affirms Interest in Medical Research Career

SUNY Geneseo junior Greg Roloff examines malignant breast cancer cells in biology faculty member Robert O'Donnell's cell culture and cancer therapeutics lab.

GENESEO, N.Y. -- A SUNY Geneseo student is well on his way to a career in medical research and patient care thanks in part to his work on a University at Buffalo research team that has made significant progress in the use of stem-cell therapy to repair damaged heart tissue.

Greg Roloff, a junior biology and chemistry major at Geneseo from West Seneca, N.Y., worked last summer as an intern in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Science's stem-cell and genetics lab. He joined his mentors in co-authoring an academic article in The American Journal of Physiology (Heart and Circulatory Physiology) describing the positive regenerative effects that mesenchymal (connective tissue) stem cells from bone marrow had on damaged heart tissue in hamsters.

The research team found that injecting the stem cells into a leg muscle of the animal promoted new tissue formation more effectively than previous methods of introducing the cells directly into the damaged heart.

"Our approach is novel because it is non-invasive," said Roloff. "We injected the stem cells into the animal's hamstring muscles in the leg and the proteins and growth factors the stem cells secreted eventually made their way to the heart and promoted new tissue formation. We think avoiding trauma to the already damaged heart tissue aided in improving the results."

The stem cells don't actually travel out of the skeletal muscle where they are introduced, says Roloff, but they give off potent proteins, which travel to the heart through the bloodstream, starting a cascade of messages to genes within the heart that triggers the regeneration of new tissue. The UB project is led by Techung Lee, associate professor of biochemistry and biomedical engineering in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

"It was a great honor to be included as a co-author on the article the team published describing our results," said Roloff. "I learned a lot about stem cells very quickly in Dr. Lee's lab and am awed by the potential of stem cells. I very much felt a part of the team."

Roloff's work in the lab involved assisting with the actual treatment and then analyzing the amount of dead tissue in the animal control group versus the treatment groups. Those findings are what allowed the team to conclude that the stem cell treatment was reducing the degeneration of the heart tissue.

It's not yet known if human hearts would respond in the same manner to similar stem cell therapy but animal studies often provide valuable information in advance of human clinical trials to test such therapies.

Medical school is in Roloff's plans after graduating from Geneseo, which he hopes will lead to a career in research. He credits Robert O'Donnell, distinguished teaching professor of biology at Geneseo, for sparking his interest in medical research during his sophomore year.

"I worked in Dr. O'Donnell's cancer lab and all the skills he taught me at the fundamental level carried over," said Roloff. "My prior knowledge of cell culture was significant in Dr. Lee bringing me into his lab. All I had to do was learn a few things that were stem-cell specific. I never thought I would be involved in this kind of research as a junior."

O'Donnell has mentored numerous undergraduate students like Roloff in his immunology and cancer research laboratory and believes faculty-student research experiences are an integral part of an undergraduate liberal arts and science education.

"We highly value conscientious, mature and motivated students like Greg," said O'Donnell. "He is extremely conscientious and I have every confidence that he will have a successful career in medical research. I am very fortunate to have him in my lab."

Roloff also worked on the final phase of another potential breakthrough the UB stem-cell research team is reporting. The mesenchymal stem cells from bone marrow used in the research have a limited lifespan and scientists must frequently obtain new samples from human bone marrow donors, an expensive and time-consuming process. The researchers genetically engineered the cells so they showed no signs of aging in a culture while retaining their therapeutic potency in the animal studies on heart disease. The finding could streamline work scientists are doing in regenerative medicine research by making sure a plentiful supply of stem cells are available, thus helping speed development of treatments for a wide range of diseases.

"Stem cells are the medicine of the future," said Roloff. "I envision stem-cell data banks that will match patient needs. It's all very exciting."

SUNY is producing a video report on Roloff's undergraduate research experience to illustrate the work the university is doing to address New York's health care challenges, a component of the "Power of SUNY" strategic plan.

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