Celling Out

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Celling Out
Dr. Eva Feldman, director of the A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute and the Program for Neurology Research and Discovery, is confident stem-cell research will lead to effective treatments for myriad diseases.
Photographs by Roy Ritchie

Don’t even try to keep up with Eva Feldman. By 8 a.m. on a chilly December morning, the University of Michigan stem-cell researcher and professor of neurology has already put in a few hours writing e-mails and making phone calls connecting with colleagues and patients. And it’s only Monday.

Now she’s suited up for a stint in her research labs at the A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute, where she serves as director. Clad in a red sweater, gray slacks, and Brooks running shoes, Feldman dashes past a bank of some two dozen refrigerators filled with stem-cell and tissue samples.

“People say I’m the only woman who has more refrigerators than shoes.”

After an hour in the labs, she’s back in her office checking on post-doctoral candidates’ stem-cell research, reviewing budgets, and pushing along grant applications. When that’s done, she pulls out a pair of black leather shoes, a hand mirror, blush, and a tube of lipstick from a filing cabinet to quickly transform herself into “Dr. Feldman.” Pulling on her crisp white doctor’s coat, she says, “I always try to look a little better for my patients,” and she hurries from the Biomedical Science Research Building to the neurological clinic at the University of Michigan Medical Center, where she’s on-call for the month of December.

A few days later, Feldman will repeat the process as she heads over to see patients in a clinic for neurodegenerative diseases that serves as the epicenter for everything she and her team of researchers work on in the labs.

In harshly lit exam rooms, she takes notes about symptoms and checks the strength of patients’ legs, arms, hands, and feet. She listens to daughters as they talk about fathers whose shoulder muscles don’t seem as strong, and wives who’ve noticed a 20-pound weight loss in their husbands. By the end of the day, she’ll have to tell at least one patient (and possibly several more) that he has ALS — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

In almost two decades as a doctor of neurology at the University of Michigan, Feldman has diagnosed hundreds of people with ALS. She and a team of doctors personally care for about 150 ALS patients in the clinic annually.

Feldman knows there’s no cure and no effective treatment for this disease, which lays waste to people’s bodies as their muscles weaken and eventually become paralyzed when nerve cells die and aren’t replaced. But something sets her apart from other doctors diagnosing and treating patients with ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases: She’s a doctor and a researcher — a not-so-common occurrence in medicine.

After the tough morning hours in the clinic, Feldman is back in the lab, looking at nerve stem cells that are growing slender ribbons of cells called axons. Those pulsating cells — stained vibrant red and green to show up on slides — could hold the answers to treatments for the diseases she sees in her patients.

“To be frank, I couldn’t go into the lab and work as hard as I work if I didn’t have my patients as inspiration,” Feldman says during a rare quiet moment in her office. “And yet … I couldn’t face them many days — giving them the diagnoses I give — without being able to say there’s hope. I can tell them, ‘We’re working hard in the lab, and I have 30 young people keeping it going 24/7, so I’ll have therapies to bring to you.’” 

A Cure for the Economy?

Stem cell therapies hold great promise — and not just for Feldman’s patients.

The University of Michigan and many people in the state, including politicians, business leaders, and voters who approved stem-cell legislation in 2008, believe that biomedical research — including stem-cell research — has the potential to help revive the state’s foundering economy.

Stem cells, derived from both embryos and adults, can be used to treat diseases at the cellular level, making them a powerful economic force if and when those therapies are commercialized. Stem cells — in particular, those derived from embryos — are able to become any type of cell in the body, from a kidney to an eye retina. In the future, stem cells can be used to grow tissues and organs, making tissue replacement a major area of investment and growth.

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