$58.5 million gift will fund JHU science

Anonymous donation to create institute for stem cell research

Treatments, patents beckon

Study could enable repair, replacement of diseased organs

January 31, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

The Johns Hopkins University's medical school will spend $58.5 million - the second-largest gift in the university's history - to create an Institute for Cell Engineering, where scientists will seek ways to use stem cells to repair or replace diseased organs.

Dr. Elias Zerhouni, executive vice dean of the medical school, said the institute's anonymous benefactor has made it possible for Hopkins to plunge into one of the new century's most promising areas of medical research.

"In the life of a scientist, there are very few things that happen that may have as much significance as what we are trying to do today," he said.

Chi Dang, the medical school's vice dean for research, predicted that the new institute could help Hopkins "push into the next level of research, in terms of benefiting mankind."

Hopkins officials said the gift, which is in cash and comes without restrictions, will pay for efforts to crack the stubborn secrets of these versatile cells, which are capable of morphing into the specialized cells that make up the brain, heart, liver and other parts of the body.

Dennis O'Shea, executive director of public affairs for Hopkins, said the $58.5 million gift is second only to the $100 million given in the late 1990s by business information entrepreneur Michael R. Bloomberg.

O'Shea said he did not know the identity of the institute donor, only that it was an individual. The gift is the first of several the donor plans to make to Hopkins, university officials said.

Since the discovery of all-purpose stem cells a few years ago, researchers have talked about using them to treat everything from Lou Gehrig's disease and head injuries to diabetes, heart failure and stroke. When transplanted into mice and rats, the cells have formed new blood vessels, strengthened bones and fixed severed spinal cords.

But human stem cells are more difficult to grow than stem cells in mice, and human cells haven't worked reliably in animal experiments. Human stem cells, when transplanted from one person to another, also face rejection by the body, as transplanted organs do.

Stem cell research also faces political barriers. The first stem cells were harvested in the late 1990s from human embryos and fetuses, tangling the work in the debate over abortion. President Bush has hinted that he might reverse current policy and bar the use of federal funds for research on stem cells derived from aborted fetuses.

The institute would not be affected by such a ban, Hopkins official said, because of its private funding.

John D. Gearhart of Hopkins, who co-discovered embryonic human stem cells, will be part of the institute's core group of researchers.

There are too few sources of private money for the hundreds of scientists around the country working in this field, he said yesterday. If federal money were cut off, he said, scientists would be forced to halt their work, which could delay or block development of vital treatments.

"It would be a tragedy," Gearhart said.

Dang said the institute will recruit several scientific teams to hunt for the genes that are switched on or off in stem cells, as well as the proteins that help guide their development. A group of immunologists will study ways to overcome the problem of rejection.

If institute scientists can cultivate and channel stem cell growth, Zerhouni said, the work would be handed to teams of Hopkins physicians, who would use the discoveries to design new treatments.

The institute could generate patents for Hopkins, which, like most academic medical centers, has become increasingly aggressive in trying to commercialize its research.

According to the Association of University Technology Managers, the federal government issued 111 patents to Hopkins in 1999, the latest year for which figures are available. That's more than any other research institution surveyed except the nine-campus University of California System and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But Zerhouni said any patents on stem cells or methods of exploiting them would be a byproduct of the institute's work, not its main goal.

Many universities, he said, are reluctant to study stem cells because of the attached controversy. He said it is important that a nonprofit academic research center such as Hopkins pursue stem cell research, rather than leaving the work mostly to industry. The institute, he said, will help "bring objective light" to the research.

Hopkins officials say the institute will be situated on two floors of a research center being built at Broadway and Madison Street, north of the main Johns Hopkins Hospital complex. Construction is scheduled for completion in 2004.

The gift to Hopkins comes weeks after another large anonymous donation: $30 million to help create a basic research center at the medical school. O'Shea said the gifts were not from the same donor.

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