Stem Cell Pioneer Joanne Kurtzberg interview, Part 1

Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg
Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg

Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg is a stem cell pioneer and has advanced the development of innovative stem cell therapies including those based on umbilical cord blood.

She is a faculty member at Duke where she conducts her clinical research. I recently interviewed Dr. Kurtzberg and below is Part 1 of 2 of the interview.

Part 2, which has fascinating insights on helping patients steer clear of non-compliant clinics, what excites Kurtzberg the most about stem cells, and her view of the future of the field can be found here.

1. How did you first get interested in stem cells as a potential basis for medical treatments? Was there a particular “aha!” kind of moment? What about key mentors for you earlier in your career?

I first became interested in stem cells when I was a fellow in Hematology/Oncology and treated a teenage boy with refractory T-cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia with an experimental drug which was a nucleoside analog which induced differentiation of his leukemic cells from a T-lymphoblastoid to a mature myeloid phenotype.   The conversion also induced control of the leukemic process and induced a remission.  I subsequently established a cell line from this patient’s leukemic cells and began to study the mechanisms underlying ‘stemness’, stem cell differentiation and leukemogenesis. During this time, I worked in the laboratory of Dr. Michael Hershfield who was my mentor.


I also was fortunate to get to know Gertrude Elion (Trudy), who later won the Nobel Prize in Medicine with George Hitchings.   I was working with a mouse model of T-cell lymphoma and Trudy gave me a vial of a compound she’d synthesized years before.   The compound was active in the mouse model and I worked with Trudy and Bev Mitchell to get an investigator initiated IND to bring it into the first clinical trial.   Long story short this led to the development of nelarabine which was licensed by the FDA for the treatment of T-cell Leukemia many years later.

2. What makes you particularly excited about cord blood as a tool for treating pediatric patients? How is cord blood different from other kinds of stem cells in terms of therapeutic potential? What are its strengths and weaknesses?

Cord blood is the optimal form of mobilized blood.  It is comprised of mature blood cells, hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells and rare stem and progenitor cells of other lineages (pancreas, brain, muscle, endothelial cells, elements of skin, and perhaps others).  I think that cord blood has enormous potential for use in the emerging field of regenerative medicine.  Cord blood T cells are more immunologically tolerant of a new host as compared to adult hematopoietic cells.  Cord blood can be collected from the placenta, or afterbirth, shortly after delivery of the baby without any risk to the baby or mother.   Cord blood is often discarded after birth.  Harvesting of cord blood, banking and subsequent therapeutic applications is taking medical waste and converting it to life-saving therapies.

3. Can cord blood cells get into the CNS and engraft in clinically meaningful levels? What’s the data like on this for humans? Given the blood brain barrier, what is the mechanism by which cord blood cells enter the human CNS?

Yes, cord blood cells cross the blood brain barrier and engraft in high levels, mostly as microglial cells, after myeloablative chemotherapy and intravenous delivery.   Cells migrate through the choroid plexus to enter the brain.

4. Once cord blood cells have entered the CNS, how might the cells help patients such as the kids who have cerebral palsy (CP)? Is it a ‘cell therapy’ kind of approach in the sense that the cord blood cells actually grow into useful cells in the brain? Or do they mostly work by mobilizing endogenous stem cells in the brain? Stimulating angiogenesis? Other mechanisms? What do we know concretely about potential mechanisms of cord blood being helpful for neurological diseases?

I believe that cord blood cells help patients with brain injuries primarily through paracrine and trophic effects.

I think they decrease inflammation and stimulate endogenous neurogenesis and endothelial repair.   Cord blood cells are capable of differentiating into neurons, oligodendrocytes and microglia in vitro.   I think this capability is helpful to patients with leukodystrophies who undergo allogeneic stem cell transplantation with cord blood. In these cases, the donor cord blood cells engrafting in the brain also serve as a source of permanent cellular enzyme replacement therapy.

5. How are the clinical trial(s) going (e.g.

They are ongoing.  It is too early to talk about results.

6. Are there other pediatric diseases for which cord blood cells may be clinically useful besides CP? Do you envision the mechanism of therapeutic benefit being similar or distinct?

Allogeneic cord blood transplantation is used to treat children with leukemias and other hematological malignancies, bone marrow failure syndromes, inherited immunodeficiency syndromes, certain inherited metabolic diseases and hemoglobinopathies.


I believe that autologous cord blood may have a role in treating children with type I diabetes, other autoimmune diseases, and brain and cardiac injuries.

7. What exactly are the clinically important cells in cord blood, which is a heterogeneous substance, beyond hematopoietic stem cell and progenitor cells? Do you believe in the notion of pluripotent stem cells in cord blood?

Yes, see above.

8. What do you think of very small embryonic-like stem cells (VSELs)?

I don’t know what to think about VSELS.  I do think there are very small numbers of ES like cells in cord blood.  I’m not sure VSELS are those cells.  I think the numbers are 10-20 and are not likely to be clinically useful for now.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the interview in a few days!

8 thoughts on “Stem Cell Pioneer Joanne Kurtzberg interview, Part 1”

  1. Pingback: Cells Weekly – August 18, 2013 | Stem Cell Assays

  2. Pingback: Joanne Kurtzberg interview, Part 2: non-compliant stem cell clinics and the future of the stem cell field | Knoepfler Lab Stem Cell Blog

  3. @strong
    I see that you didn’t bother responding to any of my points, you just attacked me personally. I guess that speaks for itself regarding the strength of my argument.

    And yes, isn’t it amazing the list of charges one can come up with when they don’t have to prove anything? Why don’t you add molesting a chambermaid, money laundering, racketeering, and terrorism to the list–aren’t those the usual ones that the powers that be throw around when they have no evidence and they want to get rid of someone? I invite you, or anyone else to find one bit of admissible evidence of any of those charges.

  4. As the mother of one of Dr. Kurtzberg’s patients, I have nothing but admiration and gratitude for her. She is working within proper clinical trial guidelines and keeping children safe. Unlike the evil charlatans that would do anything for a quick buck and their next 15 minutes.
    Speaking of which, here you go Mr. Ecklund, some very disturbing facts on why you lost your medical license. Child molestation, bestiality, the list goes on.!/2010/12/public-safety-announcement-stem-tech.html

  5. This interview is a great community service! So many people would like to know more about JK’s life and work. It is a pleasure to hear her thoughts on the professional level, not the type of sound bites that get aired on 60 Minutes. Thank you for reaching out to her and bringing us this interview – I am looking forward to part 2.

  6. Here is that unsolicited comment from the CBS website:
    As the parent of a child with cerebral palsy, this is so troubling. We were fortunate enough to have Dr. Kurtzberg do a stem cell infusion for our our son two summers ago; we’d banked his cord blood at birth. (Here’s where I wrote about it: ). Dr. K. told us from the start she couldn’t guarantee results. But my husband and I decided that if it couldn’t hurt Max and that it might help, we’d do it. Today, we don’t know for sure that the stem cell infusion is in any way responsible for the progress Max has made, but it doesn’t matter: We’re just grateful for the progress.

  7. Well, isn’t this interesting? Here is CBS 60 Minutes’ favorite stem cell “expert” saying that she has found that 1. Stem cells DO enter the CNS, and 2. Cord blood stem cells (both autologous and allogeneic), are useful in the treatment of a number of disorders.

    Hmm, why is it that when I said the same things to Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes in a segment broadcast in January 2012, in particular in regards to cerebral palsy, this “expert” said that cord blood stem cells “have no medical use in the treatment of cerebral palsy”. Especially in light of the fact that she was subsequently found to have treated over 150 children using cord blood stem cells for various disorders, the majority of which were CP? How does that work?

    So, if 60 Minutes says that Kurtzberg says that there is no beneficial therapeutic use for cord blood stem cells in cerebral palsy, which statement do we believe? Do we believe her statement as presented by 60 Minutes, or her statement in the current interview?

  8. Pingback: News and Blog Roundup 07/08/13 | Stu's Stem Cell Blog

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