Record competition for stem cell grants means tough choices for state officials

Posted: December 27, 2014 at 6:50 am

The competition for Maryland's stem cell research grants will be stiffer than ever as applications flood in next month, forcing officials to be more selective even as scientists worry that the state's fiscal problems and a new administration in Annapolis may mean smaller budgets in the future.

The Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission received a record 240 letters declaring intent to apply for $10.4 million in grants, officials said this month. While the majority came from researchers, more than a dozen came from startups and other companies and half a dozen for work testing therapies on humans proof that the 8-year-old program is boosting the state's biotechnology industry, officials said.

But that also means the state likely will reject more applications for the grants than in previous years. And with no funding promises from Gov.-elect Larry Hogan and state budget cuts looming, researchers worry there will be less to go around in 2016 and beyond.

The uncertainty comes just as advancements in stem cell science are making more research possible, threatening progress in Maryland even as other states surge forward, researchers said.

"In California, they have $3 billion. Here, we have $10 million a year. It is very hard," said Ricardo Feldman, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "Not all of us who have exciting results are going to get it, and some of us who do not get funding will not be able to continue what we started, and that will be very sad."

At an annual symposium on state-funded stem cell research this month, state stem cell commission officials said they received letters of intent from a record 16 companies as well as seven proposals for clinical work and 144 proposals for "translational" work research that aims to turn basic science into viable therapies. Applications are due Jan. 15.

Historically, the awards have gone more for university research and projects that are still at least a few steps away from being used in hospitals, but the surge in commercial and clinical work is a product of the state's long-term commitment to the grants, said Dan Gincel, the stem cell research fund's executive director.

The grants help research projects advance to a stage where they can attract backers like drug companies or other for-profit investors, who are more discriminating in the projects they support since many end up going nowhere.

"A long-term commitment is extra important for something so high-risk," Gincel said. "You gain trust that this is going somewhere."

There aren't many investors for researchers to turn to early on, said Jennifer Elisseeff, a professor of biomedical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University who has been part of teams receiving $920,000 in state grants over the past two years. She and colleagues are exploring how to stimulate stem cells to regrow tissues, a project she called "kind of basic science-y but also very applied."

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Record competition for stem cell grants means tough choices for state officials

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