As reported by The New York Times, December 10, 2006.
Connecticut Takes a Lead in Stem-Cell Research Aid
By Jennifer Medina
FARMINGTON -- One researcher will get $3.5 million to explore how embryonic stem cells might be used to repair skin, muscles, cartilage and bones badly injured in war. Another will get a few hundred thousand dollars to examine ways such cells could repair neurons damaged by epilepsy and seizures. A third will track their use in treating Parkinson’s and other degenerative brain diseases.
Doling out $20 million to 21 research projects, Connecticut is moving faster and further than other states to take the most controversial form of stem-cell research, that involving tissue from human embryos, from the political arena to the laboratory. The money will flow beginning next year, and is just a start: the state has allocated $100 million over the next decade.
Connecticut leads several states that have started to take more aggressive steps to support stem-cell research since President Bush vetoed a provision last summer to spend federal money on it. That veto came after a White House move in 2001 to restrict federally funded research to a limited number of stem-cell lines.
Soon California will begin to decide how to distribute nearly $150 million. New Jersey has already awarded nearly $10 million, though most of the research projects there do not involve embryonic cells; the state plans to allocate millions more for additional research facilities. Maryland and Illinois have also agreed to finance stem-cell research.
Private companies and foundations have also paid for some projects.
It will take years, if not decades, for the research proposals Connecticut is supporting to be translated into clinical trials for therapies or cures. Each proposal reflects the high expectations for the use of embryonic cells, which scientists believe can be developed into any type of body tissue and thus provide the basis for comprehensive treatments.
Opponents of such research, which uses destroyed embryos, want it to be severely restricted or banned outright as inhumane.
The first round of grants will pay for research at the University of Connecticut — which received $12 million, more than half the total — Yale University and Wesleyan University.
“Certainly we put an emphasis on research that cannot or is not being done elsewhere, which means embryonic stem cells,” said Dr. J. Robert Galvin, the commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Public Health and chairman of its stem-cell advisory board. “We want to create an atmosphere here where we are showing that this is welcome in Connecticut. We are operating under the belief that if we build it, they will come.”
More than 70 proposals were considered by scientific review boards before being submitted to the research advisory committee appointed by the state.
One rejected proposal included a plan to clone a human embryo and use it to produce new stem cells. Dr. Galvin said that it was turned down because it received low marks from the review board, and that there was no vocal opposition to the idea of cloning embryos in principle.
The committee made a special effort to finance scientists who are only beginning such research.
Dr. David W. Rowe, a professor of genetics and developmental biology at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, who will get $3.5 million for experiments on healing serious war wounds, said he was confident that such work would bring attention to the university.
Like several other researchers receiving the grants, Dr. Rowe has done some research using adult stem cells, but is hoping that embryonic cells will be stronger and more efficient to repair the most serious wounds.
“What’s going on with soldiers now is that injuries are so catastrophic, massive injuries and losing large segments of bone,” Dr. Rowe said. “This really is transformative for us because we can look at ways of doing things we had only thought about so far.”
Laura Grabel, a professor of biology at Wesleyan, whose $800,000 research project focuses on epilepsy, has done some similar work using stem cells in mice, and said that using human stem cells would take the research one step closer to an ability to apply it in patients.
“We’re not anywhere near the level of this happening in humans, and there are many roadblocks,” Dr. Grabel said. “But there are some models of the system that look very promising, and we’re just at the very beginning. This is going to be far beyond what we were able to do before.”
Like other scientists pushing for such research, Dr. Grabel said she was thankful for the “extremely supportive political climate” in the state and said she expected other researchers to take notice.
“There is no question that more money is going to translate into more research, and we will be in an excellent position to get more dollars from the federal government if the funds ever become available,” she said.
While the financing is widely praised in scientific circles and many advocates view it as a potential boon for local economies, some caution that financial support from states alone could result in a patchwork and haphazard approach to the research.
“There are many states moving money around, but the implementation is not the same everywhere, so while we are grateful for state governments filling the void, it points to real problems,” said Sean Tipton, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research and a leading lobbyist in Washington for stem-cell research funding.
“It is quite inefficient to have every state trying to figure out their own way of how to review grants, spend the money and monitor what the researchers are doing,” he said.