As reported by The Hartford Courant, December 23, 2005.

Stem Cell Funding May Thwart Expert

By William Hathaway

Lured by new state funding for stem cell research, more than 50 scientists at the University of Connecticut have submitted proposals to tap part of $100 million expected to be available in the next 10 years.

But by opening up opportunities for so many researchers, the university's guidelines could hinder the work of a renowned scientist who has pledged to make UConn the first institution in the United States to create human embryonic stem cells through cloning.

Xiangzhong "Jerry" Yang, director of the Center for Regenerative Biology at UConn's campus in Storrs and an international cloning expert, was not among the researchers who applied by the deadline Tuesday for a share of the funds the state legislature voted to make available for stem cell research.

Yang, who is battling cancer, has said he wants to create new human embryonic cell lines by next spring and he was planning to use state funds. Federal funding for such research is prohibited, which is one reason Connecticut lawmakers voted to join New Jersey and California as the only states to back human embryonic stem cell research with public funds.

But Yang appears unlikely to get adequate support quickly enough to meet his ambitious goals.

Guidelines developed by the university's stem cell advisory committee earmark $100,000 each for 16 research proposals in the first year. UConn also plans to ask the state for funds to create laboratories where scientists can conduct the research.

The submissions showed interest from a wide area of academic interests at both Storrs and the university's Health Center in Farmington, officials said.

"This will allow many people to grow into stem cell expertise," said Dr. David Rowe, a professor of genetics and developmental biology at the UConn Health Center and one of two members of the university committee who developed the application guidelines.

"It is exciting. There is tremendous interest in the program," said David J. Goldhamer, an associate professor of molecular and cell biology on the Storrs campus who drafted the guidelines with Rowe. "We have most of the existing stem cell researchers applying as well as new people who are interested in the program. This is opening up the process to all sorts of people on both campuses."

However, among researchers in Connecticut, only Yang has the expertise to create human embryonic stem cells.

And researchers acknowledge privately that $100,000 is far too little money to create new embryonic human stem cell lines, particularly using a controversial and relatively untested technology such as cloning.

Yang, who is a member of the committee, declined to comment on the guidelines.

Although the formula for making allocations is posted on a university website, it is "not etched in stone," said Marc Lalande, chairman of the genetics and developmental biology department at the health center. Lalande heads the university committee that is charged with laying the groundwork for a UConn Stem Cell Institute.

It is possible that Yang or another researcher could ask for a larger amount, he said.

"If we have to go back to the drawing board, we will," Lalande said.

The funding criteria were just one of several setbacks to the research plans of Yang, who has gained an international reputation for his work in cloning cows and wants to see his work applied in humans before he dies.

Yang planned to use the same technology as South Korean researcher Hwang Woo Suk, who reported this spring that he had used cloning to create human embryonic stem cells. But this month several of the South Korean scientist's collaborators accused him of fabricating his results and today his university said many of his findings were faked.

The technology involves implanting DNA from a donor's skin cell into an unfertilized egg and then triggering the development of an early stage embryo. In theory, because the resulting embryonic stem cells would contain the DNA of the patient, they then could be safely implanted to treat a host of different medical conditions.

Yang said despite the controversy about Hwang's findings, he is confident the cloning technology to create early-stage embryos will be successful in humans. It has been tested many times in animals and at least twice in humans, he noted.

However, Lalande said that if the South Korean researcher's work is debunked, "then it would have to enter our thinking" about how aggressively to fund Yang's work.

UConn also has requested a legal opinion about an apparent flaw in the state law that prohibits compensating women who donate eggs for research.

While the state law specifically permits cloning research, it also bars "direct and indirect" compensation for donated eggs - which Yang would need to conduct his cloning work.

Rowe said that could mean a woman who volunteered her eggs for research would also have to pay the approximate $8,000 expense that fertility experts say it would cost to obtain them.

An opinion by the state attorney general is pending.

University officials said Wednesday that deans of the two UConn campuses will have the final say on the package of selected proposals to be presented to the state for funding.

However, Dr. Peter Deckers, dean of the UConn Health Center, is a Catholic who is opposed to human embryonic stem cell research.

He has pledged not to become involved in overseeing the stem cell institute, but it is not clear who would act in his stead.

The proposals will be reviewed before being consolidated into a single proposal that will be submitted early next year to the state stem cell advisory committee, which is scheduled to approve research grants in the spring.