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Saturday, April 5, 2008

State Stem Cell Grants Awarded

The Connecticut Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee doled out almost $10 million in state grants to Connecticut scientists Tuesday, including one that has the potential to take some of the controversy out of stem cell research.

That grant went to a group of University of Connecticut scientists who formed a rare collaboration between researchers at the main campus in Storrs and the Health Center in Farmington.

Led by Theodore Rasmussen of the Center for Regenerative Biology at UConn, the group plans to coax human skin cells into embryonic cells through a process called nuclear reprogramming. The process, one of the hottest fields in biology, does not require the use of human embryos to create stem cells, removing a major ethical hurdle to stem cell research.

Stem cells are the building blocks for every type of cell in the body, capable of maturing into any type of tissue. Although the ability to use stem cells to cure disease remains a dream, there is hope that they someday could be used to treat a wide variety of ailments, including heart disease, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injuries.

Another grant went to a private biotech company called Evergen that was started at UConn by cloning pioneer Xiangzhong "Jerry" Yang, who announced two years ago that he would attempt to be the first to clone a human embryo for the purpose of creating stem cells.

Yang has returned to his native China, where he is battling cancer, and his lab is being run by other researchers. And while it appears that nuclear reprogramming might make embryo cloning obsolete, the committee Tuesday set aside $900,000 for Evergen's work.

Before finalizing the awards late Tuesday afternoon, the 13-member advisory committee, composed of physicians, researchers, a dentist and a Parkinson's patient, spent two days poring over 87 grant applications seeking a total of more than $40 million.

The chosen scientists, including 10 young researchers just entering the field of stem cell investigation, two collaborative groups and a handful of established individual researchers, will share $9.8 million.

The money is part of Connecticut's $100 million investment in stem cell research — with $10 million a year to be awarded over 10 years. Tuesday's were the second round of awards. The money is designed to promote stem cell research in Connecticut, despite a ban on using federal research dollars for embryonic stem cell research.

The longest debate, by far, centered on a proposal by Yale School of Medicine researcher D. Eugene Redmond to find a way to repair brain cells damaged by Parkinson's disease by transplanting stem cells from human fetal brain tissue into the brains of monkeys.

The so-called neural stem cells have showed promise in mice, but monkey brains are much more similar to those of humans and thus an essential component of testing before such treatment could ever be tried on human subjects, said Haifan Lin, director of the Yale Stem Cell Center.

Although the committee was enthusiastic about the project, it first cut Redmond's funding request by $500,000 because the monkey research is to be done on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, and the committee opposed exporting state money. As the haggling continued, Redmond's request for $2 million ultimately was cut in half — a cut that Lin said could effectively kill the research.

Grants awarded Tuesday include:

•$1.8 million to improve laboratories at Yale so the university could create initiating cells that would be used by other researchers doing stem cell experiments; produce new lines of embryonic stem cells; and use new, faster techniques to identify genes that can be responsible for certain diseases.

•$250,000 to a UConn lab that is working on a new technique to separate stem cells.

•$900,000 to Evergen to continue its work on nuclear transfer to create cloned human embryos.

•$1.1 million to Redmond's Parkinson's research at Yale.

•$634,000 to the UConn collaborators working on the nuclear reprogramming alternative to using human embryos for stem cell research.

•About $500,000 each to at least three UConn researchers and one from Yale working on various stem cell projects.

•$200,000 each, for a total of $2 million, to 10 young scientists just getting started in stem cell research.
Contact Hilary Waldman at

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