Stem cell research bids pour in

State panel is flooded with applications for funds to finance studies

January 17, 2007|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,sun reporter

The Maryland Stem Cell Commission has received research applications totaling nearly $81 million, more than five times the amount of money the state has to spend.

"This is amazing," Karen Rothenberg, a commission member and a bioethicist from the University of Maryland School of Law, said yesterday as the panel got its first peek at the flood of proposals.

In all, state officials reported yesterday, there were 85 applications for research into a variety of diseases, including Parkinson's, cystic fibrosis and heart disease, and for experiments using both embryonic and adult stem cells.

Of the grant applications, 44 were submitted by researchers new to working with stem cells who could receive a maximum of $100,000. The other 41 were submitted by better-established stem cell researchers who could receive up to $500,000.

On Friday, 24 stem cell experts from outside Maryland will begin rating the proposals based on their scientific merits, said Renee Winsky, interim executive director of the Maryland Technology Development Corp., which provides administrative support to the commission.

The 15 in-state commissioners will then use those ratings to decide which of the proposals share in the $15 million pool of funding available this year.

To avoid conflicts of interest, the law that established the research fund last spring required the reviewers to come from outside Maryland.

More difficult to resolve, however, have been questions surrounding commissioners appointed by the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, institutions that filed many of the funding requests.

By law, the commission must include three representatives from each institution.

But those members are also supposed to leave the room when topics related to proposals from their institutions arise.

Because more than a third of the members could be affected by the broad rule, several commissioners expressed concern that this issue will affect decision making.

"We are dead in the water if we don't do something about this," said Murray Sachs, a biomedical engineering professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

The commission is seeking advice from lawyers on how to solve the problem and hopes to have a solution by the time it next meets, in February.

"That's uncharted territory," said Linda Powers, the commission's chairwoman and the managing director of Bethesda-based Toucan Capital Corp.

"Everybody is trying to grope their way towards an approach that is fair and practical," Powers added.

The commission will discuss how it will vote on the proposals at its next meeting and hopes to announce by March which projects will be funded, she said.

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