Even as scientists across the country struggle to work around federal restrictions on stem cell research, Yale researchers will now enjoy the benefits of almost $6 million in grants.
Twelve Yale stem cell research projects received grants totaling $5.6 million from the Connecticut Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee on Tuesday. The money was distributed as part of Connecticut’s 10-year Stem Cell Research Program, established in 2005 to fund types of stem cell research deemed ineligible for federal financing. The twelve Yale proposals — in addition to ten winners from the University of Connecticut — were selected from a pool of 87 applicants, according to a University press release.
The top winners included the Yale Stem Cell Center, which received $1.8 million to expand its resources; a research team led by Eugene Redmond, professor of psychiatry and neurosurgery, which received $1.1 million to explore the potential of embryonic stem cells in treatment for Parkinson’s disease; and a team headed by Flora Vaccarino, associate professor of neurobiology, which received over $450,000 to examine the differentiation of neural stem cells.
Although most of the winning scientists interviewed said the additional funding will undoubtedly benefit their research, for some, the money simply will not go far enough.
Eugene Redmond, for example, said the committee cut his grant by half during deliberations. His project involves studying how stem cells differentiate into the cells that make up dopamine systems — a failure of which leads to Parkinson’s disease — by observing stem cells in monkeys with an experimental form of Parkinson’s. And because the exorbitant cost of buying monkeys for research in the U.S. is prohibitive — up to $5,000 apiece, Redmond said — his team plans to conduct their research at a facility in the West Indies.
But Redmond said the Advisory Committee, wary of the potential political repercussions of directing state taxpayer money out of the country, decided to cut the primate budget from the grant.
“I was a little bit disappointed,” Redmond said. “People are always concerned about shifting American jobs overseas. I don’t blame them for making the decision, but I was hoping they’d act differently.”
Redmond said the state grant will only cover about half of his project’s costs and he will have to look to other sources for the remaining funding.
But Flora Vaccarino said her grant of almost $450,000 will suffice.
Vaccarino said she is studying the behavior of neural stem cells in mice, with the eventual goal of discovering the genes that facilitate the differentiation of these stem cells into various types of neurons.
Her research, she said, is considered a risky investment because results are not guaranteed. It also uses a line of stem cells that the federal government — which only finances research on lines created before August 2001 — will not finance.
“Sometimes you don’t know what you’ll get, but you don’t have the money to try,” she said. “It’s very good for scientists to have a special place to do what they should be able to do without political roadblocks.”
Vaccarino said without the funds from the Advisory Committee, the project would not be able to survive, both because of federal restrictions as well as the decline in distributed grants across the sciences.
She said her proposal stood apart from the others because it involves both observation and application of certain genes in stem cells.
Similarly, Redmond said he thought his proposal was distinctive because of its practicality and because he thinks a clinical application may be possible in the near future.
But a representative of the Stem Cell Research Peer Review Committee — which scored the proposals and passed them on the Advisory Committee for evaluation —said applicability was not necessarily the primary concern. Linzhao Cheng, a member of the Peer Review Committee and professor at Johns Hopkins University, said the proposals were evaluated on the basis of five parameters widely used in the scientific community.
Cheng said these parameters included the proposals’ significance for both medicine and scientific research, including basic research; the feasibility of their approach; their creativity and innovation; the environment and available resources; and the qualifications of the investigators involved.
Lynn Townshend, executive aide to the Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Public Health, agreed that the focus was not necessarily on studies that had immediate applications.
“[They wanted] to fund the best possible science,” Townshend, who helped run the committee meetings, said. “[Will this] translate from bench to body? In the far off future, we hope it will ultimately lead to the betterment of health.”
But the committee did have some preferences for the proposals they chose, Townshend said. Funding embryonic stem cell research — also ineligible for federal funding — was highly prioritized.
In fact, Townshend said, the state of Connecticut created the Stem Cell Research Program because of the lack of funding for new embryonic stem cell lines on the federal level.
The program was approved in 2005, instating a fund that is set to receive and distribute $100 million in state money over a period of 10 years. Grants totaling $19.78 million were awarded for the first time in November 2006 to Yale, UConn and Wesleyan University. The recent grants mark the second round of appropriations.
“We’ve got two major research institutions, and we want to be able to support them and their efforts in this new and burgeoning field,” Townshend said. “As a state we want those lines here and we want to keep them here.”
Other Yale proposals selected for funding included a proposal by Laura Niklason, professor of anesthesiology, to study the use of stem cells in creating vascular cells and blood vessels, as well as one by pharmacology professor Dianqing Wu to study the differentiation of embryonic stem cells into heart cells.