As reported by The Hartford Courant, November 6, 2007.

Stem Cell Funds in Demand

Among 94 Requests, UConn Group Hopes To Bypass Cloning

By William Hathaway

A new technique being developed by a group of scientists at the University of Connecticut has the potential to create customized human embryonic stem cells in a way that may make cloning unnecessary and end the ethical objections that have long hamstrung this type of research.

Another group of UConn scientists is hoping to use embryonic stem cells - which have the potential to help fight disease - to create new nerve and heart tissue and move toward clinically useful applications of their research.

The proposals are among 94 requests totaling $44 million received by the Nov. 1 deadline set by the Connecticut Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee, which is set to dole out $10 million in state funds to Connecticut scientists sometime next year.

The state has committed to distributing $100 million over 10 years - critical funds for labs barred from federal grants because of their work with human embryonic stem cells. This marks the second round of funding.

The proposed projects range from those that focus on a few of the steps embryonic cells take in becoming a variety of tissue to more ambitious research - such as the UConn effort to be the first to turn simple human skin cells into embryonic-like cells without destroying embryos.

The University of Connecticut researchers have proposed a project to coax human skin cells into embryonic cells through a process called nuclear reprogramming, which has become one of the hottest fields in biology.

Such cells would be the exact genetic match of patients and could be used to treat a wide variety of ailments, from heart disease, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injuries without triggering a dangerous immune response.

And because no embryos would be destroyed, this would be more ethically acceptable than other methods.

Until recently, the only proven way of obtaining such "patient-specific" cells was through somatic cell nuclear transfer, or cloning - the fusion of DNA from the skin cell into an unfertilized egg to create an embryo.

In the past two years, several prominent international researchers, including Xiangzhong "Jerry" Yang, who as director of the Center for Regenerative Biology at the Storrs campus of the University of Connecticut announced that they would attempt to be the first to clone a human embryo.

But last year, Japanese researcher Dr. Shinya Yamanka showed that by switching on four key developmental genes within the skin cells of mice, he could create cells that acted as if they were young again. The work, which does not require destruction of embryos to obtain the cells, has since been duplicated by other labs using animal cells.

UConn scientists in both Storrs and Farmington want to join the efforts of other labs to improve on nuclear reprogramming and accomplish the same feat using human cells.

"The field is only a year old," said Theodore Rasmussen of the Center for Regenerative Biology. "Basically, we are looking at ways to obtain the results of nuclear transfer in a non-controversial way."

Yang last week applauded the effort, saying "we should try different approaches" to obtain stem cells. Yang, who is battling cancer and has stepped down as director of the Center for Regenerative Biology, did not apply for funds to conduct his cloning work but will help two graduate students who have applied for funds for their own cloning projects.

The students want to create mouse embryonic cells through cloning that would be used to repair hearts and to produce sperm cells - a potential cure for male infertility.

In all, UConn researchers in both Storrs and at the Health Center in Farmington have filed 57 applications asking for about $23 million.

Yale University has at least 18 applications, but no dollar amounts were available Monday. In one proposal, scientists would seek to study how embryonic stem cells self-renew as well as give rise to different tissue types, said Dr. Diane Krause, associate director of the Yale Stem Cell Center. Other researchers plan to track the development of blood cells.

Both Yale and UConn are seeking additional state funds to bolster newly created stem cell centers, which are ineligible for federal funding because they work with human embryonic cells.

The emphasis at the University of Connecticut Stem Cell Institute located at the Health Center in Farmington will be not only on creating human embryonic cells for research purposes, but to prepare for the day they will be used in therapy, said Marc Lalande, director of the stem cell center.

Scientists there have proposed using embryonic cells to test new ways to repair damaged hearts and create motor neurons, Lalande said.

On a recent visit to the United Kingdom, Lalande said, he was impressed by the way human embryonic cells were created in close cooperation with local fertility clinics, where couples donated leftover embryos for research. Lalande noted that the first trials of human embryonic cells in humans could take place as soon as 2010, he said.

With states like New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey also rolling out plans to finance stem cell projects, Connecticut needs to move quickly to maintain momentum gained by last year's $20 million research allocation, he said.

"We need to move forward on this," Lalande said.