As reported by the New Haven Register, November 22, 2006.

State Takes Lead on Stem Cells

By Abram Katz

University of Connecticut scientists Tuesday got the lion's share of Connecticut's first round of research grants into the mysteries of stem cells, claiming a little more than $12 million of the state's $19.8 million total for this year.

Yale University was awarded about $7 million, and Wesleyan University received almost $900,000.

The 21 grants were culled from about 70 that survived a science committee composed of non-Connecticut experts and then judged to have merit by the state Stem Cell Advisory Committee. The system is intended to avoid favoritism in awarding grants.

The three universities will now submit their grants to their own embryonic stem cell research oversight committees, to ensure that the research avoids ethical tangles.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposed the Stem Cell Research Fund in 2005 to sidestep a federal ban on research using human embryonic stem cells. The General Assembly allocated $100 million over 10 years for the research.

"With this first allotment of money, Connecticut becomes a national leader in the area of stem cell research," Rell said Tuesday.

Connecticut, California, New Jersey, Maryland and Illinois decided to fund stem cell research because scientists believe the cells could eventually be used to treat or cure diabetes, degenerative brain disorders and other diseases.

Connecticut is apparently the first of the states to start carrying out an ongoing research grant program, according to UConn.

Out of the $19.8 million, Yale, UConn and Wesleyan will spend $5 million - almost 25 percent of the total - to build stem cell "core" centers to make sure that the state-funded research is not conducted in federally funded buildings.

Stem cells are valuable because they have not yet become any specific type of cell, such as bone, muscle, blood or brain. This means they might be molded to replace tissue, or yield knowledge on how cell types differentiate.

Scientists are permitted to use approved federal stem cell lines, but many researchers contend these cells have long since lost their usefulness.

Dr. David W. Rowe, director of regenerative medicine and skeletal development in the UConn School of Dental Medicine, said, "We're very pleased" by the grants.

Rowe said UConn may have submitted slightly better applications. "This was a case of 'grantsmanship.' Yale didn't really appreciate the legislation. The panel wanted research involved (with) human embryonic stem cells, stuff that's not fundable by the National Institutes of Health," he said.

"They just didn't read the tea leaves," Rowe said.

However, Yale received the single largest grant, $3.8 million, to figure out how stem cells become different types of nerve cells.

Dr. Robert J. Alpern, dean of the Yale School of Medicine, said Yale had a broader research approach and believes much research could be done in animals. Apparently, the committee was more interested in human embryonic stem cell proposals, he said.

"Yale is thrilled to get the money and to start the research," Alpern said.

Michael Snyder, director of the Yale Center for Genomics and Proteomics, said who secured the most grants is not really relevant. He is the principal investigator in the $3.8 million grant.

"The way to look at it is that many investigators submitted proposals. Grants were ranked based on science," he said.

Rowe said how stem cells "know" how to turn into various kinds of neural cells is one of many basic biological questions. "The pathway for that differentiation, at best, has only been barely explored."

A diverse team of Yale scientists will attempt to reveal key molecules in the process. Eventually, it may be possible to get stem cells to differentiate into useful cells, Rowe said, though that is not his current research goal.

While Yale is concentrating on neural differentiation, UConn received a $3.5 million allocation to conduct research into how human embryonic stem cells progress to bone and connective tissue.

"Most of the grants are in very basic biology on human stem cells and how they differentiate. We don't know very well at a molecular level what events happen," Rowe said.

Rowe said the UConn, Yale and Wesleyan grants will inevitably dovetail. "First we need to understand how cells differentiate, and then we can control it," he said.

Although the legislature split the $100 million into $10 million increments, this year's installment was doubled because the legislation was enacted in 2005, making 2006 the second year.

"After careful consideration and review by both an international panel of experts and by this committee, we are confident that Connecticut is investing in stem cell research projects that will yield significant scientific findings in the long term," said the stem cell advisory committee chairman and public health commissioner, Dr. J. Robert Galvin.