Q & A with Sunil Abhyankar, M.D.

photo of Sunil Abhyankar, Director of the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center

Sunil Abhyankar, M.D., was appointed the director of the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center in 2018. Abhyankar, who is a professor of medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine in the Division of Hematologic Malignancies and Cellular Therapeutics. KU Medicine spoke to him about the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center and the future of adult stem cell research.

Along with all your other duties, why were you interested in taking on the directorship of the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center?

The work being done at the center fits well with my other duties which involve blood and marrow stem cell transplantation. I have been a bone marrow transplanter for the past 25 years and with the increasing use of cellular therapies to treat various malignant and non-malignant disorders, there is a need to bring stem cell therapy to the clinic.

It's been nearly six years since the opening of the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center. What accomplishments can you point to in the center’s first six years?

The Center was established by the Kansas legislature to foster research and therapy with non-embryonic stem cells to help patients in Kansas and beyond. In this regard the Center has been successful in completing clinical research studies with mesenchymal stem cells in heart repair post myocardial infarction and neuronal (brain) repair post stroke. The funding from the state also helped to establish a Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) laboratory where currently clinical grade adult stem cells are manufactured for therapeutic purposes.

Can you tell us more about some of the research studies and clinical trials going on at the center?

We have several research projects going on at the center. A Phase I trial of using Wharton’s Jelly Mesenchymal cells to treat patients with severe acute graft versus host disease is being done in collaboration with Dr. Joseph McGuirk in the Division of Hematological Malignancies and Cellular Therapeutics at the KU School of Medicine. This study has enrolled eight patients to date, and the results are looking quite promising. We are the first center in the world to offer this research trial, so it’s really putting KU on the map.

Another promising pre-clinical study is investigating the use of manipulated Wharton’s Jelly Mesenchymal cells to treat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease. This research is being done in collaboration with Dr. Hiroshi Nishimune and Dr. Richard Barohn at the KU School of Medicine. We have several other collaborations with other research or clinical departments with The University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City and at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, as well as the Stowers’ Institute and Kansas State University.

What do you think the potential for adult stem cells is?

Stem cell therapy has a lot of potential. Over the past two decades a number of pre-clinical and clinical studies suggest that stem cell therapy holds promise in treating a wide spectrum of diseases ‒ from treating degenerative joint disease to neuromuscular problems and tissue repair in damaged muscle, nerves and skin. However, there is a lot of research that needs to be done before the full potential of stem cell therapy, and in particular adult stem cell therapy, is realized. We need an ongoing effort on the part of laboratory scientists and health care providers to conduct such research in FDA-approved clinical trials. By doing so we can move this field forward and get novel therapies that work to the people who need them.