Friday, August 11, 2017

Minnesota sceptical of funding Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Among those handful of states that fund embryonic as well as other forms of stem cell research, Minnesota is the newcomer.[1]

Minnesota is home to the nation’s first interdisciplinary institute dedicated to stem cell research, the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Minnesota Stem Cell Institute, founded in 1999.  Even so, public funding for all forms of stem cell research there was approved only in 2014, with the first grants being made in 2015. This year’s grants mark the third round of funding.  Regenerative Medicine Minnesota (RMM) is charged with approving and distributing the grants.

By way of comparison, both California and Maryland began funding stem cell research in 2007.  More on this below.

In the three years that Minnesota has provided state funds for stem cell research, it has noticeably steered clear of funding human embryonic stem cell research (hESCR).

In 2015, the first round of grant making,  just under $3 million in grants was given to six research projects.

None of them involved hESCR.

In 2016, $2.75 million was distributed to 9 research projects.

Again, none of them utilized human embryonic stem cells (hESCs).

Ten grants were awarded in 2017, totaling just under $5 million.

Of the ten, nine explicitly funded non-embryonic stem cell research. The research description for the tenth one creates some ambiguity, as it refers to “pluripotent stem cells,” without specifying whether they are embryonic or non-embryonic.

Nine of the grants were clearly non-embryonic.  (Regarding the remaining grant, there is room for ambiguity.  The research description refers to “pluripotent stem cells” which could refer to non-embryonic iPSCs, as well as hESCs.)

As noted before on this blog (here, here, and here), California and Maryland have in recent years strongly favored research using adult, induced pluripotent and other forms of non-embryonic stem cell research in their grant making.

But this was not always the case.

When both states handed out their first grants in 2007, they strongly favored hESCR.  Maryland gave only 4 grants to projects using adult stem cells, while 11 projects using hESCR received grants – almost three times as many.

California first round of grants went to 72 research projects, all of them utilizing hESCs.  A second round of grants in 2007 went to 29 projects – again, all of them centered on hESCs (two also involved somatic cell nuclear transfer, a.k.a., cloning).

This has changed over the years, with both states now heavily favoring non-embryonic stem cell research in their grant making.

Minnesota, in marked contrast, has given little, if any, support for hESCR.  Why? Timing may provide an answer.

California and Maryland began funding stem cell research against a background of hype and hyperbole regarding the potential of hESCs to cure any number of diseases and conditions.  Human embryonic stem cells were hyped as the “gold standard” in the field of regenerative medicine, while adult stem cell research was dismissed as far inferior.

All that began to change in 2007, when Shinya Yamanaka discovered a method to produce what he called “induced pluripotent stem cells.”  Like embryonic stem cells, these cells were fully pluripotent.  However, they did not require the destruction of human embryos; they could be derived from a simple somatic cell, such as a skin cell.  With a ready source of ethically non-contentious, fully pluripotent stem cells now available, more and more researchers began turning to them rather than hESCs.

Moreover, adult stem cells were proving far more versatile and effective in providing therapeutic benefits to patients than those who dismissed them as inferior had predicted.  While not yet providing cures, patients treated with adult stem cells for such things as multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, diabetes and other diseases began to show improvements from their treatments. In fact, over 1 million patients have been treated thus far with adult stem cells.

When Minnesota handed out its first stem cell grants in 2015, the changes the advent of iPSCs had wrought in the field of regenerative medicine were evident.  Also evident by then was the complete failure of hESCR to live up to all the hype regarding miracle cures they were supposed to bring about.  Only a handful of clinical trials were underway using hESCs; in contrast, the NIH on its website listed thousands of clinical trials for patients using adult stem cells.[2]

It is thus not unreasonable to assume that given these developments, Minnesota decided to steer clear altogether of hESCR and instead provides funds for what has proven to be far more promising adult, induced pluripotent and other non-embryonic stem cell research.

[1] The other states are California, Maryland, Connecticut and New York.
[2] At
  A recent study has questioned the validity of at least 18 trials listed on the website.  That still leaves several thousand valid trials listed testing adult stem cells.

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