Stem cell research ramps up

January 15, 2010
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West Michigan Science and Technology Initiative Executive Director Linda Chamberlain said a “community conversation” is needed about the region’s role in embryonic stem cell research, which is growing in other parts of the state.

“There’s a moral and ethical challenge to doing embryonic stem cell research that will take a community conversation to overcome,” Chamberlain said last week.

“The scientist in me needs to recognize that … not engaging in (embryonic stem cell research) is a competitive disadvantage, not just in the region or statewide. The challenge will come to us when we look at stem cell therapies being available in countries other than our own, when someone needs a treatment in a country that is not friendly to us and is denied.

“We have got to find a way to have this conversation and make sure we can stay competitive.”

At Grand Rapids’ premier research facility, the Van Andel Institute, no researchers are working with embryonic stem cells, Vice President Communications & Development Joe Gavan said.

“The Van Andel Research Institute does not use embryos or embryonic stem cells in its research, has not been asked by any current researcher to use either, and would likely use any one of a number of viable alternatives should the need for versatile stem cells be required for future research,” Gavan said.

“The Van Andel Research Institute has attracted millions of grant dollars to fund our research needs.  Hence, if the goal is to attract grant funding, there is no compelling reason to modify our research focus to include embryonic stem cells.”

One of the University of Michigan’s leading embryonic stem cell researchers said she is hoping that research teams in Ann Arbor will be able to find ways to collaborate in the future with VAI researchers.

“Certainly, the University Research Corridor — and that includes the Van Andel Institute — I think has expressed excitement concerning using stem cells and the whole concept of regenerative medicine in both understanding disease and developing new treatments,” said Dr. Eva Feldman, a neurologist and director of U-M's A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute.

“We have reached out to them and are partnering with both Wayne State and Michigan State. And I know that in our conversations we have discussed hopefully starting a good relationship with the Van Andel, concerning what their interests might be in terms of utilizing stem cells for both understanding disease processes, as well as the development of new therapeutics, and how we can partner with them, and what we can do for them.”

The U-M remains the vortex of human embryonic stem cell research in the state, but URC members WSU and MSU are also working on related programs, as is Oakland University.

“I love what’s going on in Ann Arbor. They are really taking full advantage of what voters said they can do, and they are moving swiftly,” Chamberlain said.

Feldman, for example, recently received federal Food and Drug Administration approval for a privately funded human clinical trial at Atlanta’s Emory University for an amyotrophic lateral sclerosis therapy that utilizes nerve cells generated from embryonic stem cells.

Michigan’s nascent embryonic stem cell sector follows voters’ 2008 approval of a constitutional amendment that swept away legal barriers in the state. While there are several types of stem cells that are used in research, embryonic stem cells are considered the best. Scientists say therapies derived from stem cell research hold the promise to treat or even cure some devastating diseases such as spinal cord injuries, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.

But the use of embryonic stem cells is controversial because they are extracted from donated embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures, destroying the embryos in the process.

In March, President Barack Obama reversed former President George W. Bush’s order that eliminated federal funding for stem cell research on cell lines created after 2001. Obama’s order still prohibits the use of federal funds to create new stem cell lines, but does permit them to be spent on research involving the 40 new lines created with private funding since 2001 and registered with the National Institutes of Health.

Grants from the government and private foundations drive stem cell research, Southwest Michigan First CEO Ron Kitchens said. In time, there may be opportunities in the state for companies selling products that support researchers, he said.

“If stem cell research was equated to the auto industry, Henry Ford hasn’t even entered the picture yet,” Kitchens said. “That doesn’t mean we’re not going to get to a 2010 Corvette, but we haven’t invested the dollars yet nor have we had the time to build that up.

“There are no short-cuts,” he added. “It is such a regulated process that it can’t be readily sped up. Absolutely, it’ll be a growing industry, but it is going to be slow and methodical, and it is generational in its growth.”

“I think we’re still a number of years off,” agreed Stephen Rapundalo, CEO of biotech state trade group MichBio. “If there’s going to be any sort of near-time — in the next three to five years — commercialization in the field here in Michigan, it’ll be more on the technology side rather than on the therapeutic side … the research products and services end of things, rather than therapeutic.”

In June, Republican state Sen. Tom George, R-Kalamazoo, sponsored legislation that would demand that embryonic stem cell researchers file annual reports with the Michigan Department of Community Health, prohibit mixing animal and human cells and stop people from buying or selling human embryos for stem cell research, therapies or cures, among other provisions. A companion bill from state Sen. Mark C. Jansen, R-Gaines Township, sets criminal penalties for violators.

George did not return a phone call seeking comment. Both bills remained in the Senate’s Health Policy Committee as of last week.

Critics contend that the proposal flouts the will of the voters and would effectively shut down stem cell research in Michigan.

“The citizens of the state of Michigan decided that Proposal 2 should pass as a constitutional amendment,” said Feldman, of the U-M. “I think they’ve voiced their opinion. The majority rules.

“While we understand there are individuals who have concerns, this is a highly regulated process. We adhere to all federal regulations, all University Hospital and state regulations, and further regulatory mandates are not required or needed.”

Rapundalo said he thinks that if passed, the laws would have a chilling effect and would send research dollars to other states. States vary dramatically in their approaches to embryonic stem cell research, from laws that encourage it to laws that prevent it. Most allow it.

“What they’re adding is layers of bureaucracy that are really unneeded because they already exist at the federal level,” Rapundalo said. “If we begin to put these kinds of regulatory hurdles, the word will get out. … I’d hate to start taking a step backwards when we’re barely out of the starting gate. On the face of it, they seem a little bit benign, but in fact I think they can actually have a major untoward effect if they are actually passed.”

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