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Ira Black dies

New Jersey loses founding director of proposed stem cell institute

By | January 18, 2006

Ira B. Black, New Jersey neuroscientist, stem cell pioneer, and founding director of the first publicly-funded stem cell institute, died unexpectedly on January 10 at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He was 64. ?He leaves very big shoes to fill,? Wise Young, co-founding director of the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey, told The Scientist. Best known for demonstrating how certain adult bone marrow stem cells can develop into transplantable neurons, the Princeton, N.J. resident acted as chairman of the neuroscience and cell biology department at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ)-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School since 1990. Black was appointed as the first director of the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey, established in May 2004 by UMDNJ and Rutgers University, after New Jersey became the second state to pass laws supporting stem cell research. Black had a long-standing interest in applying his research to treat debilitating neurological diseases, his colleagues say. The idea of devoting the institute to ??both basic research and [science that is] translational to patient treatment is really his concept,? said Sherrie Preische, Executive Director of the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology. ?It?s a tribute to his leadership that we are continuing along his vision? And we will try to do him proud.? Black?s friends and colleagues praised his ability to describe his research to scientists and the public alike ? an important aspect of working with stem cells. ?[Black] was able to explain things to legislators and other politicians?so that people really [understood] the necessity of doing this,? said Preische. Though Black used postnatal stem cells in his own work, colleagues say he argued eloquently before legislatures and other officials in favor of research on fetal and embryonic stem cells. ?He believed that if you could not communicate what you had discovered, then it was as though you hadn?t made the discovery,? said Cheryl Dreyfus, a colleague in his department who has known Black since he headed her thesis committee 30 years ago. As a mentor, ?he set amazingly high standards for himself and everybody around him,? said Harold Paz, dean of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. ?Even more important,? said Young, ?he did it with his sense of humor and with a kindness that?was wonderful for students.? Dreyfus recalled how Black used to interrupt his own work to graciously answer and make note of her four-year-old son?s early morning calls to the lab. ?He knew we had things in our lives other than the science, and that those things were important,? she said. Young, who is based at Rutgers University, recalled the pleasure of working with him on study sections and advisory boards, when ?he would make very very funny comments. He really did have a very dry sense of humor,? he said. ?Ira was just so enthusiastic about every new piece of data and every new finding. He had a very good way of putting together a lot of facts and putting together the bigger picture,? Martha Bohn at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, who was a postdoctoral fellow under Black at Cornell, remembered. ?I always said that he spoke in paragraphs.? Black became an internationally recognized expert on neuroplasticity and the role of growth factors in the development of the central nervous system. In 2000, he reported that his team had successfully differentiated adult human and rat bone marrow stromal stem cells into neuron-like cells, a discovery that ?stunned the field,? according to Young. The day he made the discovery, recalled Paz, Black took him into his lab and showed him the cells in a microscope. ?It was breathtaking,? he said. When the team transplanted the stem cells into different regions of developing rats? brains and spinal cords, the cells produced healthy neurons and the animals survived. Most recently, his team began to parlay these findings towards therapeutic applications, working to convert bone marrow stem cells into neurons for transplantation in rats with various neurological diseases. The future of New Jersey?s stem cell institute was called into question earlier this month, when New Jersey legislators tabled two bills that would have provided funding for it. But N.J. Governor Jon Corzine, who took office yesterday, has emphasized his commitment to building the Institute. As the Commission whittles down its shortlist for a permanent director, Preische said she expects to break ground within two months. Black served as President of the Society for Neuroscience from 1992 to 1993 and was a member of the scientific advisory council of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. Over the course of his career, he was honored with the McKnight Foundation Award in Neuroscience, a Jacob Javits Award in Neuroscience of NINDS, the Viktor Hamburger Prize, and the Rita Levi Montalcini Award. Black authored three books: Cellular and Molecular Biology of Neuronal Development; Information in the Brain: A Molecular Perspective; and The Dying of Enoch Wallace: Life, Death, and the Changing Brain. Black attended the Bronx High School of Science and graduated from Columbia in 1961 with an undergraduate degree in philosophy. He earned his medical degree at Harvard, then went on to head the Laboratory of Developmental Neurology and served as the Nathan Cummings Professor of Neurology at Cornell University Medical College until 1990. His final paper in the Journal of Neurobiology, which demonstrated a novel role for a neuropeptide in neuronal plasticity, was published online the day after he passed away. ?There are now a number of groups that have reported that bone marrow stem cells may be beneficial in spinal cord injury in humans,? Young told The Scientist. ?It?s sad that we are?right on the threshold of realizing his dreams and he?s not here to see it.? Ira Black is survived by his son, Reed, his ex-wife, Janet Linquist Black, and his fiancée, Janet Davis. By Ishani Ganguli iganguli@the-scientist.com Links within this article Ira Black http://www2.umdnj.edu/blackweb/ Wise Young http://lifesci.rutgers.edu/~molbiosci/Professors/young_w.html Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey http://www.state.nj.us/scitech/stem_intro.html A. Harding, ?US stem cell rules loosening?? The Scientist, May 20, 2004. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/22189/ Cheryl Dreyfus http://lifesci.rutgers.edu/~molbiosci/Professors/dreyfus.html Harold Paz http://rwjms.umdnj.edu/imrp/leadership/paz.htm Martha Bohn http://www.northwestern.edu/nuin/fac/bohn.htm D. Woodbury et al., ?Adult rat and human bone marrow stromal cells differentiate into neurons,? Journal of Neuroscience Research, August 15, 2000. PM_ID: 10931522 G. Munoz-Elias et al., ?Adult bone marrow stromal cells in the embryonic brain: engraftment, migration, differentiation, and long-term survival,? Journal of Neuroscience Research, May 12, 2004. PM_ID: 15140930 A. McCook, ?Stem cells in New Jersey? The Scientist, August 19, 2004. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/22357/ RH Ring, "Transcriptional profiling of brain-derived-neurotrophic factor-induced neuronal plasticity: A novel role for nociceptin in hippocampal neurite growth," Journal of Neurobiology, January 11, 2006. PM_ID: 16408296
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