The University struck back against stringent state regulation of stem-cell research and the brain drain of top scientists in the field with yesterday’s announcement of the creation of the new Center for Stem Cell Biology, to be headed by researcher Sean Morrison.

Sarah Royce
(Reason Online)

In the face of growing competition from universities in states such as California, Wisconsin and New Jersey – all with their own stem-cell funding initiatives – the University has been attempting to keep its own star stem-cell researchers from being lured away. Researcher Michael Clark is relocating to Stanford.

The fact that the state of Michigan has some of the most restrictive laws governing stem-cell research has not helped. Current state law prohibits the derivation of new stem cell lines from frozen embryos slated to be discarded by in-vitro fertilization clinics or from a technique that places material from the nuclei of stem-cells into an egg cell to induce division.

“The legislative environment in Michigan restricts our ability to derive new (embryonic stem cell) lines,” Morrison said. “It’s a problem I hope we’ll change.”

With the departure of Clark for Stanford, Morrison himself had been approached with offers from several research universities across the country.

“Not to say that things here are perfect – it would be nice if the state laws were changed – but I looked at other (universities), and I didn’t find the same combination of advantages that we have here,” Morrison said.

Stem cells – which can be transformed into specialized cells such as neurons or bile-producing islet cells in the liver – have recently become the new cutting edge of biology research. The hope is that they can be used for therapeutic purposes – for instance, for growing replacement organs – or to help researchers learn about the development of diseases. The most malleable stem cells, however, are currently derived from embryos, a fact that has sparked a national ethical debate.

Several states, responding to federal reluctance to support stem-cell research, have come forward with their own initiatives to fund stem cell investigation. The University’s new Center for Stem Cell Biology is a part of this growing trend.

A joint venture funded by the Life Sciences Institute, the University’s Medical School and the Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute, the new center will have an initial budget of more than $10 million. Although this figure is dwarfed by the amount allocated in California, Morrison put it into perspective.

“Keep in mind that $3 billion (allocated to stem cell research in California) will be divided over many institutions in a very large state over a 10 year period,” he said. “There are big questions that remain over there.”

Alan Saltiel, director of the Life Sciences Institute, said the $10 million figure will likely increase.

“This is a very conservative figure,” he said. “This is just the start; the investigators will bring in other resources and other funding.”

Ironically, one of only three nationally funded embryonic stem cell labs is located at the University and headed by Sue O’Shea, a professor of cell and developmental biology in the Medical School.

According to O’Shea, who works with existing stem-cell lines, the plan is to work in close conjunction with the researchers at the new center.

“We plan to collaborate considerably, she said. “Both groups are interested in doing good science, and this is a really good first step.”

The new center will serve as an example of the University’s ability to bring together researchers in different fields to do interdisciplinary work.

“This is an example of the synergies that we can achieve,” Saltiel said. “We bring investigators together around a common theme to take approaches they may not be able to elsewhere.”

The center will be charged with investigating how the cells acquire specialized functions and stay active. To this end, it will recruit seven new stem cell biologists over the next four years, assigning some of them labs in the recently built Life Sciences Institute.

“These plans are based on resources that have been committed at this point,” Morrison said.

“With more money, new lab space, great resources, a past history of success and our commitment from (University) President (Mary Sue) Coleman, there are very few universities in the country that can compete with our combination of advantages,” Morrison said.

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