In an effort to expand stem cell research programs across the state, Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s Empire State Stem Cell Board recently awarded $14.5 million worth of research grants to 25 New York based institutions, including nearly $2 million, for Cornell’s Ithaca campus and the Weill-Cornell Medical College in New York City.
According to Dr. Shahin Rafii, director of Weill’s Ansary Stem Cell Center for Regenerative Medicine, these awards are a promising step in the right direction, providing much needed funds to a highly underfinanced field.
Joining several other states in supporting stem cell research, New York’s new program is one of the largest in the country, second only to California’s ambitious 10-year $3 billion initiative. The New York program plans to invest a total of $600 million over the next 11 years towards stem cell research projects around the state, starting with this initial $14.5 million allotment.
So far, the program has been a great success, said Mark Leinung, director of Policy for Lt. Gov. David A. Paterson. With only eight months between approval of the funds and awarding of the grants, he said the Funding Committee of the ESSCB has set a good pace for putting the money to use.
“I think this has been one of the best accomplishments of this administration,” said Leinung.
At Weill-Cornell, researchers plan to use the funds from the state in a number of new and continuing projects at both the Weill -Cornell and Ithaca campuses. Looking at several different methods for creating and using regenerative stem cells, the schools will spread the awards across eligible projects in their stem cell research programs including federally approved studies on embryonic stem cells and newer studies on creating stem cells from specialized cells found in adults.
As a relatively new field of study, this kind of broad research effort is necessary to keep all options open, said Dr. Michael Kotlikoff, Austin O. Hooey Dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine.
“I think we’re at a point that’s very early on to determine which kind of stem cell is better,” he said.
Due to the varying degrees of success with certain types of stem cells, researchers have taken the field in many directions over the past several years. One of the most recent achievements was a breakthrough in testicular stem cells at Weill where studies led by Rafii revealed the potential for creating adult tissue cells from early stage sperm cells.
By using these kinds of cells, researchers can avoid the moral issues associated with embryonic stem cell studies and the cancer potential of other stem cell sources like reprogrammed precursor skin cells.
But lab research is not the only focus of the state funding. The program also aims to encourage extensive networking between institutions and greater dialogue about new findings.
Leinung said, “Science works best when you have open communication and collaboration … the more the merrier.”
According to Kotlikoff, Cornell has already begun successfully establishing such cooperative programs across the campus and the country. Recognizing the benefits of shared knowledge, the University started the Cornell Stem Cell Club – a coalition of 19 laboratories on campus doing stem cell-related research – last year and has also formed partnerships with researchers in Washington state.
The new funding program appears to promise New York research institutions financial help to establish similar collaborations and improve stem cell studies statewide, but Rafii contends that it is simply not enough.
“Research is very expensive,” he said. “We need maybe ten times more. California provides billions, why can’t we offer more than millions?”
For many laboratories across the country studying stem cells, limited federal funding – totaling only $639 million for 2008 – is forcing researchers to work on meager budgets, severely limiting progress in the field. New York’s grant program will help augment this modest financial support for institutions throughout the state, but falls short of expectations from many researchers and Gov. Spitzer who originally asked for upwards of $2 billion to support a 10 year funding program.
The technology is available and ready for use, Rafii said, but in order to do the necessary research there must be a greater emphasis on investment in the field. Federal, state and private funding must significantly increase if stem cell research is to achieve its full potential, he said.