Legislature could boost U stem cell research

After years of controversy, state leaders are warming up, with funding on the table.

Roy Aker

The future of the University of Minnesota’s regenerative medicine research program is looking brighter than ever.

State and federal leaders in the past have denied funding for the University’s Office of Regenerative Medicine, which includes the Stem Cell Institute, because some had ethical disagreements with stem cell research.

But this legislative session, with a DFL majority and an overall shift in public opinion, researchers and legislators are confident funding will come through this year.

The current House bill sets aside $450,000 for the Office of Regenerative Medicine, while the Senate version outlines a $5 million increase each year from 2015-17. The bills’ texts don’t specify how funds should be used and how they would be divided between the University and the Mayo Clinic, its research partner.

The Senate’s bill mandates that an advisory task force comprised of members from the University, the Mayo Clinic and private industry, as well as two other regenerative medicine experts, recommend how to spend the state funding.

Dayton didn’t include funds for the research in his original budget proposal this year, but Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said there seems to be a general consensus among legislators to work together and decide on a funding amount.

“I have not heard many naysayers,” she said.

Changing perceptions

The state plays a major role in moving the institute’s research forward.

These days, legislators are more open to it than they were in the past, said Dr. Andre Terzic, director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine.

The University’s institute, founded in 1999, was the first in the United States. It works to understand how patients with chronic health conditions like heart disease, diabetes and brain and spinal cord injuries can benefit by replacing damaged cells with new
ones.

In the past, the institute studied two types of stem cells: controversial embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells, which usually come from bone marrow.

Cells are categorized as “stem” cells when they have the potential to develop into different types of cells.

Embryonic stem cell research, in particular, has been the subject of controversy because it uses cells taken from embryos.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, co-authored a bill in 2007 to let University researchers use state funds for embryonic stem cell research. Both the House and Senate approved the bill, but Gov. Tim Pawlenty ultimately vetoed it.

Other groups that have voiced opposition to local stem cell research have become less ardent.

William Poehler, a spokesman for the nonprofit prolife organization Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, said the group approves of the state’s role in funding regenerative medicine as long as researchers follow state and federal guidelines on human stem cell research.

The institute now has a longer history of conducting the research, Terzic said, and people have a better understanding of how that research is used.

“The track record we have is not only an advantage, but also a responsibility,” he said.

Terzic said legislators can act as a catalyst in allowing Minnesota to lead the field and expand the program into new territory.

“Regenerative medicine, in my opinion, is going to be the defining theme in medicine in the next couple of decades,” said Institute Director Dr. Jakub Tolar.