With major decreases in federal funding for research, a University professor is asking the public for help.
Todd Herron, professor of molecular and integrative physiology, and his team of researchers at the University’s Center for Arrhythmia Research plan to use an innovative form of fundraising, known as crowdfunding, to support their research into inherited cardiac arrhythmia diseases — a disorder passed from one generation to the next that causes the heart to beat irregularly.
Crowdfunding is a relatively new method of fundraising that relies on individuals to contribute to projects or initiatives they wish to support. Although this is the first attempt by Herron’s lab, crowdsourcing is growing in popularity within the scientific community given the need for alternative funding sources.
“It’s becoming more difficult to obtain federal funding for any kind of biomedical research,” Herron said. “We’re having to turn to other sources of funding and this was one avenue that we thought might be fruitful.”
Largely because of federal sequestration, professors at the University face ever-increasing challenges to secure funding for research projects. Congress outlined these automatic 5- to 7-percent budget cuts in an effort to reduce the deficit by about $1 trillion per year, but require across-the-board cuts to the federal agencies that fund the majority of university-based research.
In the 2013 fiscal year, 62 percent of the University’s $1.33 billion research expenditures came from federal sources, such as the National Institute of Health and National Science Foundation, according to the University. This funding has seen steady decline in recent years. Last year, the University received $9.6 million less than it had in previous years from the NIH, which accounts for about 38 percent of the University’s funding.
The researchers in Herron’s lab plan to set up their crowdfunding through experiment.com, a website that allows scientists to promote their projects and receive financial contributions from individuals and companies.
“We hope that there will be companies that will donate large blocks of money, but also for individuals, who might not have as much funding, but who also want to help with fundraising to keep this research going … can also donate money,” Herron said. “Our hope is that it will be a combination of the two.”
With the help of the funding, Herron is growing diseased heart muscle cells from induced pluripotent stem cells. IPS cells are undifferentiated, meaning they have the potential to grow into various types of specialized cells, such as liver, heart or muscle cells.
Herron’s lab has been working closely with a single family that has a history of stress-induced arrhythmia. Individuals with this condition experience irregular heartbeat when engaging in exercise or other physically stressful activities.
Six members of family have already been studied. By taking biopsies from both diseased and healthy members of the family, the lab has the ability to establish changes in the cell lines that may lead to the future development of treatments for the disorder.
“Our ultimate goal is to use these induced pluripotent stem cell to create cardiac muscle in a dish,” Herron said. “We can actually recreate their heart muscle cells in a dish and then we can study why they’re disease. We can also use them as a platform to test new drugs and new therapies.”
Although many of the family members inherited the genetic factors causing the disease, the lab must grow new stem cells for each patient in order to accurately characterize the disease. The process costs about $4,500 per individual, according to Herron. If successful, the crowdfunding campaign will help cover the costs of chemicals and other supplies necessary to continue the experiments with other family members.
“It’s essential to create patient specific stem cell lines,” Herron said. “It’s not really applicable to make just one stem cell line and then say that it’s representative of all the family members.”
Unlike embryonic stem cells, IPS cells do not require tissue from an embryo. Cells from the study were isolated from skin samples. This avoids the controversy that has arisen over the use of embryonic stem cells in research, but it has yet to be proven that IPS cells have the same versatility.
“There is still some debate in the research field about whether the induced pluripotent stem cells are as good as the embryonic stem cells,” Herron said. “The IPS cells are synthetic — they’re made in a laboratory — whereas the embryonic stem cells are nature’s stem cells.”
In addition to the potential therapies that could be developed with IPS cell research, Herron said the lab now has an added incentive: a newborn baby in the family being studied. If the researchers can discover the biological mechanisms that cause the family’s genetic arrhythmia, it could provide physicians with valuable information on how to care for the child before any symptoms appear.