Researchers eager for stem cell funding

Law giving $15 million takes effect today, but fund commission is incomplete


A new law providing $15 million in state funds for stem cell research takes effect today amid concerns about the timetable and procedure for reviewing and approving research proposals -- some of which may prove controversial.

Though the names of 11 of the 15 commissioners who will decide how the research dollars will be spent have been submitted to the state, several appointees said they had not been informed of when the commission will first meet.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is responsible for naming the other four commissioners, won't make his choices known until Thursday, spokesman Henry Fawell said.

Who ends up on the commission and how they decide to operate is of keen interest to scientists and patients' groups eager to see new research projects launched with the state money.

It is also unclear when the first grants will be awarded and whether they will go to embryonic stem cell research, which some people oppose for ethical reasons.

Getting the commission up and running and evaluating research proposals will take months, and the issue is unlikely to play a large role in the elections this November, according to legislators. The timetable, nonetheless, worries some observers, including Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat and one of the architects of the law.

"The law takes effect July 1," he said. "To do all of those things, time is a-wasting."

In order to make the case for additional funding next year, he said, it is important that projects funded by the $15 million available this year get under way so Marylanders will have something to show for their money.

In addition to the governor, others responsible for naming commissioners are the Johns Hopkins University, the University System of Maryland, the Maryland attorney general, the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Delegates. All have done so, according to their spokespersons.

The commission is being formed under the auspices of the Maryland Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO), a state business and technology development organization.

Once formed, the commission will contract with experts on stem cell research from outside the state who will form a committee to rank the proposals from Maryland scientists. The committee will use procedures and guidelines established by the commission and based on guidelines of the National Institutes of Health Center for Scientific Review.

The commission will then use those rankings to decide which projects will get state money. The panel will also decide what portion of any profit derived from the state-funded researchers will be returned to the state.

How the commission will organize itself to make those decisions and how long it will take remain to be seen.

"How well this group functions will be a critical issue," said John D. Gearhart, a stem cell researcher at Johns Hopkins University. "There are certainly a lot of unknowns."

One mystery is whether the commission will give equal consideration to adult stem cell research and embryonic stem cell research. Those who oppose embryonic stem cell research worry that the state commission is stacked to favor research on embryonic stem cells over adult stem cells.

"I don't think we went far enough to make sure there was balance on that commission," said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Republican from Baltimore County who fought against state funding for embryonic stem cell research during the General Assembly session earlier this year.

As a result of opposition by Harris and other opponents of embryonic research, the commission will include two people with expertise in the religious aspects of biomedical ethics. The governor will appoint them.

Gearhart and other researchers who work with embryonic stem cells worry that those members might opposed research on embryos. "It was a surprise to ethicists that the law specified people with religious backgrounds," he said.

The law that created the state fund was designed to counter federal funding restrictions placed on embryonic stem cell research by President Bush.

The commission appointees named so far encompass a range of backgrounds, including a Towson man who suffers from early-onset Parkinson's disease, the director of a Bethesda venture capital firm and the dean of the University of Maryland School of Law.

Gloria Marrow, a history professor at Morgan State University, was appointed to the commission as a biotechnology representative by Democrat Michael E. Busch, the speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates.

Marrow is also a member of the board of trustees for Transplant Resource Center of Maryland, a not-for-profit organization that facilitates organ donations. She became involved with the organization after her late husband underwent a heart transplant in 1988.

"There is so much research that can be done, and we have to make sure the money is being spent appropriately," Marrow said

Despite having little information about how the commission will evaluate research proposals, stem cell researchers around Maryland are already preparing to make their requests for funds.

David Trisler, a neurology researcher at University of Maryland School of Medicine, said the school is preparing proposals for research in neuroscience, cardiology, cancer and hematology.

"NIH has a program for grants where four or five labs working on the same program can apply for funding together," he said. "That is what we think the Maryland program will be, but we don't know."

Renee M. Winsky, TEDCO's executive director, said this is the first time TEDCO had administered anything like the stem cell commission.

"No instruction manual came with this," she said. "We are gathering the names here at TEDCO, once we have them all, we will be making an announcement. "

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