Less than a year ago, the state of Michigan was almost completely out of most discussions concerning the future of stem cell research.
That was before the state’s voters passed Proposal 2 last November. The ballot initiative created a constitutional amendment that allowed researchers within the state to create their own embryonic stem cell lines to study and treat diseases.
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing announced earlier this month that Detroit would host the 2010 World Stem Cell Summit — a three-day event expected to attract more than 1,200 leaders in stem cell business, policy and science from over 30 countries.
The University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State University and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation will co-host the summit, which is scheduled to begin October 4 next year at the Detroit Marriott Renaissance Center.
Dr. Sean Morrison, the director of the University of Michigan Center for Stem Cell Biology, said the summit’s venue in Michigan recognizes the state’s advances not only in the field of stem cell science but also in its political stance on the issue.
“Our own state legislature had been sending the opposite message (before Proposal 2) by creating laws that threatened to put stem cell biologists in jail for doing the same things that the state of California, for example, would pay millions of dollars for people to do,” Morrison said.
Morrison said the passage of the constitutional amendment defied the underlying politics and instead reflected the strong opinions of the general public.
“The special interest groups that opposed (the amendment) were extraordinarily well funded and organized and yet people still, by a clear margin, voted for (the amendment),” he said. “That makes an important point that resonates nationally.”
The proposal passed with 53 percent of the vote.
Dr. Eva Feldman, director of the A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute, said the legislative support has allowed the University of Michigan to form a consortium for stem cell therapies with a goal of developing new stem cell lines with embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells.
Moreover, she said the consortium would form one basis of discussion at the forthcoming stem cell summit.
“The summit draws attention to the fact that, within one year, we have gone from being perceived as a university community that was somewhat behind and almost ‘backwards’ in the stem cell arena to a mover and shaker in the stem cell field,” Feldman said.
Feldman, who is also the director of both the U-M Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Clinic and the Program for Neurology Research and Discovery, will be one of the speakers featured at the summit. Having recently acquired FDA approval for a phase one human clinical trial, Feldman will soon use direct spinal cord transplantation of stem cells in an effort to treat Lou Gehrig’s disease in 12 patients.
Feldman said she expects to present these landmark trials at the summit next year and any preliminary data that may be gleaned from her first set of patients.
“Being the principal investigator of the very first stem cell trial of this kind in Lou Gehrig’s disease, I think it helps show the outside community that, here at the University of Michigan, we can take these ideas about stem cells and actualize them,” she said.
Dr. Gerard Doherty, chief of Endocrine Surgery at the U-M Medical School, is another University stem cell researcher who anticipates presenting his work at the summit. In a recently published study by Doherty and his research team, he used embryonic stem cells to differentiate into mature parathyroid cells, which are important to bone health.
No stranger to legislative barriers in the field, Doherty said his study was constrained to the use of one of the 60 stem cell lines made available during the Bush administration. President Barack Obama has since reversed the executive order limiting federal funding on stem cell research.
As a consequence of the recent national and regional advancements in stem cell research advocacy, the 2010 World Stem Cell summit in Detroit is expected to garner more attention and scientific collaboration than its predecessor in Baltimore last year.
“There are a lot of scientific meetings and some of them are standard that happen every year and some that sort of grow up around specific topics, lasting for a few years before fading away,” Doherty said. “This one has been increasing in momentum because of the international interest in stem cell biology and the burgeoning amount of information we have.”