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As reported by WFSB Channel 3, April 2, 2009.

UConn Awarded $5.4M in Stem Cell Grants

One Lab Hoping to Change Treatment of Heart Attacks

HARTFORD, CONN. – State-funded grants have been given to 11 University of Connecticut scientists in an effort to advance embryonic and human adult stem cell research in Connecticut.

The grants, awarded Tuesday, total $5.4 million. They were given by the Connecticut Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee, a 13-member committee in charge of developing the Connecticut stem cell research grants-in-aide program.

Nine of the state grants were awarded to scientists based at the UConn Health Center in Farmington. The other two were given to researchers based at UConn's Storrs campus.

The grant received by Linda Shapiro will be used to continue work on one of the most common and expensive results of heart attacks.

"We're trying to use stem cells to repair injured hearts, and we're going to do this in a mouse model, initially," she said.

Working with mice, researchers said they hope to use stem cells to replenish damaged cells that result from a heart attack. They said one challenge is finding an alternative to injecting them into to the damaged heart, then getting them to stay where they are sent.

"What we will try to do is inject them into the veins and see if they will then travel to that place and then stay once they get there," Shapiro said. "So, we'll see."

Scientists said stem cells are the building blocks for every type of cell in the body, capable of maturing into any tissue type, including pancreas, blood, bone or neuronal cells. Through the use of stem cells, they said, science could be on its way to a radical change in the treatment of heart failure, the cost of which runs to $30 billion a year.

"So, now you can avoid the problem of heart failure by replenishing the heart with new cells," said Bruce Liang, of the UConn Health Center. "So, my area is collaborating with Dr. Shapiro to translate some of the basic findings into clinical utility -- in this case, a new cure for heart failure, hopefully."

Scientists said research on stem cells promises to advance human health care by developing innovative cell transplantation therapies for diabetes, cancers, heart and blood diseases, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's diseases as well.

Other UConn scientists who were awarded grants include Yong Wang, Stormy Chamberlain, Srdjan Antic, Ling-Ling Chen, April Schumacher, Dashzeveg Bayarsaihan, Zihai Li, Theodore Rasmussen, Alexander Lichtler and Ren-He Xu.

The money was given during SCRAC's third round of funding. In total, 24 research proposals were awarded nearly $9.8 million.

"These grants are further testament to the ground-breaking work in stem cell research that's going on at UConn's Health Center and Storrs campuses," said UConn President Michael Hogan. "This further investment by the state in our stem cell programs reflects the leadership role that UConn researchers are playing in scientific discovery and state-of-the-art health care. I'm very proud of the work of our research teams."

The funding program was approved by the Legislature and Gov. Jodi Rell in 2005. It set aside $100 million for Connecticut-based embryonic and adult stem cell research through 2015.

In 2006, the SCRAC disbursed $20 million for 21 stem cell training and research programs at Connecticut universities in the first round of competitive grants. In 2008, another 22 research proposals were awarded totaling nearly $9.8 million in the second round.

After Tuesday's third round, the state award program has awarded nearly $40 million.

SCRAC members said they received 77 preliminary requests seeking more than $30 million for research projects during the third round of funding. UConn submitted 41 of the research proposals, Yale University turned in 30, and Wesleyan University, University of Hartford and Western Connecticut State University each submitted one proposal, as did two small biotech firms.

Members of the state stem cell panel said four types of grants are awarded. They are:

  • Seed grants to support early phases of research that is not ready for larger-scale funding of $100,000 per year for two years.
  • Established investigator grants for scientists with a track record of independent research and grant support of up to $250,000 per year for three years.
  • Group project grants to support coordinated research among several investigators aimed at specific goals that are beyond the scope of a single laboratory of up to $2 million over four years.
  • Core facility awards intended to establish or maintain centers with the equipment and personnel necessary to operate a core lab that will be made accessible to the state stem cell research community.

"These grants will fuel the research of some of the most creative stem cell scientists in the world, allowing them to pursue significant new directions in stem cell research," said Dr. Marc Lalande, professor and chairman of the Department of Genetics and Developmental Biology, associate dean for research planning and coordination at the UConn Health Center and director of the UConn Stem Cell Institute.