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Money For Stem Cells

November 22, 2006
By WILLIAM HATHAWAY, Courant Staff Writer

Connecticut handed out $20 million to scientists working on groundbreaking research into the use of embryonic stem cells Tuesday, becoming among the first states in the nation to step into a role the federal government has refused to take on.

Exploring how to regenerate muscle or bone destroyed during warfare and understanding how brain cells go bad were among the 21 projects selected by the state's stem cell research advisory committee, which was charged with dispersing the first installment of the state's 10-year, $100 million commitment to stem cell research.

Faced with federal restrictions on the use of embryonic stem cells, Connecticut, California, New Jersey, Maryland and Illinois have all responded by agreeing to fund stem cell research on their own. Tuesday's grants were among the largest awards to be dispensed by a state so far.

Scientists believe stem cells hold keys to treatments for a host of diseases, but some critics argue that research using embryonic cells - which are obtained by destroying the developing embryo - should be banned or severely restricted.

"Without hope, there is no quality of life," said board member Robert Mandelkern, a committee member and state coordinator of the Parkinson's Action Network. "This committee has given people hope."

The proposals, while not offering patients immediate hope of cures or new treatments, reflect the potential of the emerging technology.

Embryonic stem cells are a key building block of human development. By understanding how they can become any cell in the human body, scientists envision ways to regenerate almost any type of tissue and develop treatments.

The proposals funded by the committee Tuesday during a meeting at Marriott Hartford Downtown may lead to insights into leukemia, Alzheimer's, and bone disease.

One of the most contentious issues facing the committee was where to locate the laboratories where the research can be conducted. Under restrictions imposed by President Bush in August 2001, no federal money can be used to conduct research using embryonic cell lines created after that date.

Officials at both Yale University and the University of Connecticut Health Center argued that they needed $5 million each; the committee voted to give each school half that amount. The UConn lab will also be used by Wesleyan University.

Among the proposals the committee declined to fund was a multi-researcher proposal submitted by the director of the University of Connecticut's Center for Regenerative Biology, Xiangzhong "Jerry" Yang, who wants to become the first scientist in the world to clone a human embryo to produce stem cells.

While Yang's own cloning proposal scored well among scientists who reviewed the research plan, related research proposals contained within his application received lower marks. With several committee members expressing regret, the panel rejected Yang's entire proposal.

Yang acknowledged that parts of his research proposal may have been too ambitious, but he noted that both reviewers and committee members expressed support for his plans to conduct somatic cell nuclear transfer, or cloning, in Connecticut.

"It is still my dream to make Connecticut a leading state in the nation for nuclear transfer," said Yang, himself a member of the advisory committee.

Yang said he will pursue other sources of funding for his plans and did not rule out applying for a new round of funding next year. The committee is expected to award an additional $10 million in 2007.

The research advisory committee selected the 21 proposals from more than 70 submitted. In all, about three dozen researchers, including 10 scientists just starting their careers, will get financial help in pursuing research.

Including the laboratory funding, about $12 million went to scientists at the University of Connecticut and University of Connecticut Health Center, $6 million went to Yale researchers and slightly less than $1 million was given to Laura Grabel, a professor of natural sciences at Wesleyan University, which has a small but active stem cell research program.

"You can't overestimate the importance of these grants in attracting and retaining researchers," said Marc E. Lalande, chairman of the genetics and developmental biology department at the UConn Health Center.

The two largest grants went to teams at Yale and UConn.

A team led by human embryonic stem cell researcher Michael Snyder at Yale plans to track all the molecular changes that take place as human embryonic cells become specific types of neurons.

The ultimate goal of the work is to establish new therapies for a variety of neurodegenerative ailments such as Parkinson's disease. Snyder and his collaborators were awarded $3.8 million.

"We want to know what goes wrong in disease states, such as the neurodegenerative diseases, but we also want information that could be incredibly valuable to help repair and rejuvenate other tissues such as the spinal cord," Snyder said.

A team of researchers at the University of Connecticut Health Center was awarded $3.5 million to study how embryonic stem cells might help rebuild bone, cartilage, skin and muscle.

Little research has been done on the ability of stem cells to regenerate musculoskeletal tissue, noted team leader Dr. David Rowe, senior investigator on the grant and professor of genetics and developmental biology at the Health Center.

The need to find new ways to regenerate such tissue has been driven home by disfiguring wounds inflicted upon military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

Rowe said human embryonic stem cells may have superior power to regenerate damaged tissue than adult stem cells, which can be found in tissue of living organisms. Rowe and his collaborators want to study the ability of embryonic cells to restore muscle and bone in mice and then in large animals before attempting to repair human tissue.

Also receiving funding were the labs of seven established researchers whose proposals range from studying the migration of embryonic cells into the brain to investigating how stem cells can be regulated by environmental cues.

At the new research laboratories, scientists hope to develop new lines of embryonic stem cells, which can replicate indefinitely in lab dishes after they are taken from an embryo.

"Our top priority is to obtain the best quality of existing lines," said Ren-He Xu, associate professor and director of human embryonic stem cell laboratory at the UConn Health Center. "These cell lines aren't easy to grow and maintain. We will provide training to all scientists in the state who want it."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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