Catherine Verfaillie, the inspiration behind stem cell research
Belgium is a world leader when it comes to stem cell research. One of its pioneers is Catherine Verfaillie. She was the first to demonstrate that adult stem cells can share the same characteristics as embryonic cells.
Catherine Verfaillie was born in Ypres on 22 April 1957 and was a keen sportswoman during her youth. Her activities included the decathlon, shot-put and sprinting. However, a serious knee injury put an end to her ambition to become a top sportswoman. So instead, she became a top scientist. She chose to study medicine at the KU Leuven (University of Leuven). Armed with her diploma she went to work in the haematology department at UZ Leuven (Leuven's University Hospital).
In 1987, Catherine Verfaillie left Belgium and moved abroad. She headed for the University of Minnesota in the United States, where she became a professor in 1997. She ran the Minneapolis Stem Cell Institute there until 2006. This is where, in 2002, she and her team made an important discovery. It had been known for some time that the stem cells in embryos contain what is required for all our organs to develop. Adult stem cells on the other hand allow only a limited number of tissue types to grow. Catherine Verfaillie discovered that adult stem cells in bone marrow can be reprogrammed to resemble embryonic stem cells. These multipotent adult progenitor cells can be used to treat diseases such as haemophilia, diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, as well as for developing organs. They therefore provide a more ethically responsible alternative to embryonic stem cells.
In 2005, Catherine Verfaillie returned to KU Leuven to found the Stem Cell Institute, working in close collaboration with the University of Minnesota.
Although her research may sometimes be considered controversial, she has already received much international recognition. Indeed, her awards include the José Carreras Award, the Leukaemia Society of America Award and the William Dameshek Prize from the American Haematology Association. In 2003 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by KU Leuven for her scientific achievements.