Maryland's race for stem cell cures

Hopkins researcher among scores of scientists competing for state funding

  • Yoon Young-Jang is studying IPS (Induced Pluripotent Stem) cells at Johns Hopkins. She hopes to develop drug therapies for liver cancer.
Yoon Young-Jang is studying IPS (Induced Pluripotent Stem)… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
February 14, 2011|By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun

In the field of stem cell research in Maryland, scientists submit more than four times as many requests for research money as there are state grants to support them.

Dr. Yoon-Young Jang knows the situation firsthand. Four years ago she submitted a grant application, only to have a state funding commission pass her by. The next year she submitted another application — and got the funding.

Today, Jang and her team of scientists are able to convert a human liver cell into a certain type of stem cell, which can then be used to generate more liver cells — a first-in-the-world discovery for the Johns Hopkins researcher. The method has broad potential applications, from creating healthy liver cells to replace damaged or diseased liver tissue to offering highly targeted drugs for individualized patient care.

Maryland has long had one of the most active state-funded stem cell research programs in the nation, funding both adult and embryonic stem cell research.

Nationwide, the stem cell field is complicated by ethical concerns about — and uncertainty over federal funding for — embryonic stem cell research. The process of obtaining embryonic stem cells results in the destruction of an early-stage human embryo. Adult stem cells do not involve embryos.

Because of state budget limitations, only about 30 to 40 research projects out of a record 180 applications this year are likely to be funded by the Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission, a part of TEDCO, the taxpayer-funded Maryland Technology Development Corp. Researchers from Hopkins and the University of Maryland, Baltimore make up most of the award winners.

"It's getting tougher and tougher — we're getting an increased number and increased quality of applications," said Dan Gincel, director of the commission's fund.

Maryland launched its stem cell funding initiative in 2006. The annual budget for grants peaked in 2008 at $23 million and has hovered around $10 million to $12 million annually for the past couple of years. An independent study last year found that state stem cell research funding supported more than 500 well-paying jobs.

Twelve states, including Maryland, currently fund stem cell research with public dollars.

Maryland's financing of stem cell research ranks third behind California and New York, according to Gincel.

In 2008, Maryland placed a long-term, if modest, bet on Jang's research with a $200,000 infusion. The following year, she won another $200,000. But last year, the Hopkins scientist returned to her East Baltimore lab with a $1.15 million state grant to continue her research in partnership with a private company, Lonza Walkersville, which is based near Frederick. Jang applied for an additional grant this year.

State officials who run the stem cell research fund say they're trying to emphasize collaboration between academics and companies to accelerate the pace of development.

Maryland taxpayers have funded dozens of researchers and their projects, some of which involve partnerships with for-profit firms.

In addition, the federal government, through the National Institutes of Health, has funded research involving human and nonhuman stem cells, both adult and embryonic.

In 2006, the NIH gave $643 million in stem cell funding. Last year, the agency awarded more than $1 billion to researchers. And this year the agency estimates it will hand out $1.1 billion. The bulk of the funding has gone toward adult stem cell research, according to NIH statistics.

Dr. Story Landis, chair of the NIH Stem Cell Task Force, said states like Maryland, which offer their own public funding to researchers, often help get projects off the ground — and scientists then use their early research to apply for additional federal funding.

"For any state to invest in stem cell research, it increases the likelihood that investigators in that state can compete for federal funding," Landis said.

That's what happened in Jang's case. She earned a two-year grant from the NIH that began this year, worth about $430,000.

Jang has conducted research with embryonic stem cells in the past, but she and others are finding great promise in another kind of stem cell called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells. Such cells don't come from human embryos, but rather are regular cells that are reprogrammed to be highly similar to embryonic stem cells.

Doctors and scientists can use such cells to test new drugs without having to administer them to people.

Jang made her first-in-the-world discovery with assistance from Lonza Walkersville. The scientist found that human liver cells can be coaxed to generate the iPS type of stem cell, which could in turn lead to opportunities to treat cirrhosis and liver cancers.

But such research is very expensive. The special solution that holds stem cells costs $250 for a 500-milliliter bottle, while regular human cells can survive in a solution priced at $10 a bottle. Jang's lab uses about 100 special-solution bottles every two months.

"Keeping stem cells alive is a monumental effort," she said.

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

twitter.com/gussent

    Baltimore Sun Articles
    |
    |
    |
    Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.