Pioneer stem cell researcher joins College of Medicine

Brent Reynolds, Ph.D.

The scientist whose work triggered the modern stem cell era in brain research has joined the department of neurosurgery at the College of Medicine and the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute of the University of Florida.

Brent Reynolds, Ph.D., recently from Australia’s Queensland Brain Institute, will lead the MBI’s efforts to use adult stem cells in efforts to develop drugs to treat cancer and a variety of other diseases.

As a graduate student at the University of Calgary in 1992, Reynolds and neuroscientist Sam Weiss discovered that mice continue to produce brain cells throughout their lives. The finding helped topple the belief that mammals, including people, are born with a fixed number of irreplaceable brain cells.

“Pretty much everything that’s happened in neural stem cells can be traced to the 1992 resurrection of the field by Brent Reynolds,” said Dennis A. Steindler, Ph.D., executive director of the McKnight Brain Institute. “As a grad student he had the ‘eureka’ paper on stem cells published on the cover of ‘Science.’ That began the whole stem cell renaissance. When I saw that article I stopped everything I was doing and started studying the same thing in humans. We found in humans what he had discovered in mice.”

Reynolds discovered cells in the brains of mice that divided to produce new cells, suggesting that throughout life, the brain’s natural stem cell population works to repair damage. The discovery opened up the possibility that medicines could be developed to bolster the brain’s stem cell reserves, or clinicians could culture donor cells for implantation into the brain.

“Based on our knowledge that adult stem cells line the entire ventricular region of the brain,” Reynolds said, “we are looking for ways of activating these cells to repair the brain either before or just after injury, in a similar way as do stem cells in other parts of the body such as the skin and blood.”

An associate professor of neurosurgery in the College of Medicine, Reynolds also intends to discover whether a cell with the ability to self-renew and produce specific tissue — characteristics of a stem cell — actually drives tumor growth or the spread of cancer.

“It is relatively new idea that suggests that a number of cancers — if not all cancers — have at their root, stem-cell characteristics,” Reynolds said. “These stem cell-like characteristics of the cancer cells drive long term growth, metastases and make tumors resistant to therapies like chemo and radiation. We are approaching this from two angles, with a brain and breast cancer stem cell project. If the cancer-stem cell hypothesis is applicable to these types of cancers, our next task will be to identify that cell and develop therapies that target it.”

In addition to collaborations with regenerative medicine scientists, Reynolds will interact with clinicians wrestling with the challenges of brain tumors at the Preston A. Wells Jr. Center for Brain Tumor Therapy.

“We’ve been working hard to establish one of the nation’s leading comprehensive brain tumor centers,” said William Friedman, M.D., chairman of the department of neurosurgery at the UF College of Medicine. “A key part of that is bringing in basic scientists who can help us develop novel approaches to the treatment of this devastating disease, and Dr. Reynolds will help us do just that. He is an internationally famous for his work with stem cells and brain tumor stem cells. We think some of his approaches to modify stem cells will lead to completely new approaches to treat patients.”

Reynolds will run the Adult Stem Cell Engineering and Therapeutic Core (ASCEnT) at the Brain Institute, leading the effort to find new therapies with Edward Scott, Ph.D., a professor in the department of molecular genetics and microbiology and director of the Program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.

In addition to the clinical aspect of the Wells Center, the ASCEnT initiative is complemented by the Florida Center for Brain Tumor Research, MRI facilities and the cancer stem cell working group, which unites scientists interested in breast, prostate, bone and blood cancer.

“While other research institutes have many of these elements, very few, if any, have all of them in one place in a highly collegial, collaborative environment,” Reynolds said. “At this point in time I don’t think there’s a better place in the world for doing cancer stem cell work than right here.”