Universities embrace embryonic stem cell research

January 12, 2009
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Michigan voters passed Proposal 2 in the November general election, loosening the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research in the state. Since Dec. 19, Michigan researchers have had the clearance to create new embryonic stem cell lines for disease research from embryos that have been created for fertility treatment purposes.

A fierce proponent of embryonic stem cell research, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman lauded passage of the legislation.

“The passage of Proposal 2 by Michigan voters signals an exciting new era for scientific research and innovation in our state,” Coleman said. “By expanding research with the creation of new embryonic stem cells, University of Michigan scientists can broaden their pursuit of therapies and cures for medical disorders that touch the lives of thousands of Michigan families.”

Proponents of embryonic stem cell research say it has enormous potential for cures and treatments for such diseases as Alzheimer’s, diabetes and Parkinson’s. But it appears the lifting of the state’s 20-year ban on embryonic stem cell research hasn’t had much impact either on West Michigan life science companies or life science companies throughout the state.

MichBio, the statewide bioscience trade association, supported the legislation. MichBio President and CEO Stephen Rapundalo said he thought the opposing side misrepresented, or at the very least wildly speculated, what the outcome was going to be immediately after the passage of the amendment: There were going to be tax dollars thrown at embryonic stem cell research, there would be no regulation, and cloning factories were going to start popping up everywhere, Rapundalo said.

“I don’t think anybody who works in the scientific community, including the stem cell community, ever thought that would happen,” he added. “We just don’t have the critical mass yet to support a more vibrant stem cell research private sector.”

Rapundalo said the initial interest in pursuing embryonic stem cell research will come primarily from exiting university stem cell research centers at U-M, Michigan State and Wayne State universities, the three institutions that make up the University Research Corridor. Oakland University, too, has researchers working in the regenerative medicine stem cell arena that could enter the embryonic stem cell arena, as well, Rapundalo noted.

University Research Corridor Spokesman Joe Serwach said it’s fair to say that the URC universities “are exploring and considering the opportunities.” MSU, however, indicated in late November that no MSU researchers had immediate plans to go ahead with embryonic stem cell research. MSU officials said they were exploring the legal implications of the new amendment and that they had assembled a committee to delve into the social and ethical issues involved in such research. 

Not every life science company is going to jump into embryonic stem cell research either; a lot are just standing on the sidelines and watching for now, Rapundalo said. He said BioFlow Technology of Novi and Aastrom Biosciences of Ann Arbor have the potential to become directly involved in such research or at least peripherally involved, but neither have voiced firm plans. BioFlow has created a bioreactor system that grows cells that would be applicable to any and all types of stem cells. Aastrom has been conducting adult stem cell research.  

“As far as I know, we don’t have any startups in Michigan that are directly focused on embryonic stem cell research, and I haven’t heard of any that are starting up or any that are being recruited from somewhere else,” Rapundalo noted. “It’s still very early. We also don’t know what kind of legislation will be attempted to try to mitigate the new amendment.”

When a discovery does come out of embryonic stem cell research at the university level, more people and more companies are likely to sit up and take notice. That’s pretty much true of any sort of technology innovation in the bioscience sector, Rapundalo said.

“I don’t think the stem cell arena is really going to be any different,” he said. “Whether we’re talking about some novel drugs for oncology or cardiovascular disease, that’s how a lot of these small startups come about. The intellectual property that comes out of the universities goes through technology transfer offices and goes out to nascent companies, and their success breeds more success.”

A recent study conducted by noted Wayne State University economics professor Allen Goodman looked at the impact of potential treatments and cures from embryonic stem cell research for diabetes, heart diseases, Parkinson’s, strokes, spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease. Results of the study showed:

  • Embryonic stem cell research could enhance treatment for more than 770,000 Michigan patients suffering from diseases analyzed for the study, including 352,000 heart disease patients, 278,000 stroke patients and more than 100,000 diabetes patients.

  • Treatments from embryonic stem cell research could reduce health care costs by tens of millions of dollars, with an estimated cost savings of $80 million a year.

  • Treatment of people with debilitating diseases could also save Michigan an estimated $27 million a year through greater worker productivity. HQ

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