Scientists Receive State Funds to Advance Stem Cell Research

Eleven UConn scientists have received state-funded grant awards totaling $5.4 million from the Connecticut Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee (SCRAC) to advance embryonic and human adult stem cell research in Connecticut.

Nine of the state grants were awarded to scientists based at the UConn Health Center in Farmington. Two were awarded to researchers at the Storrs campus.

The grants were among a total of nearly $9.8 million awarded to fund 24 research proposals in the third round of funding issued by the SCRAC, a committee in charge of developing the state’s stem cell research grants-in-aid program.

“These grants are further testament to the ground-breaking work in stem cell research that’s going on at UConn’s Health Center and Storrs campuses,” said University President Michael Hogan.

“This further investment by the state in our stem cell programs reflects the leadership role that UConn researchers are playing in scientific discovery and state-of-the-art healthcare.”

The funding program, approved by the legislature and Gov. Jodi M. Rell in 2005, set aside $100 million for Connecticut-based embryonic and adult stem cell research through 2015. Stem cells are the ‘building blocks’ for every type of cell in the body, capable of maturing into any tissue type, including pancreas, blood, bone, or neuronal cells.

Research on stem cells promises to advance human health care by developing innovative cell transplantation therapies for diabetes, cancers, heart and blood diseases, Multiple Sclerosis, and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

The SCRAC previously disbursed $20 million in 2006 in the first round of competitive grants and $9.8 million in 2008 in the second round. Including the latest round of grants, the state award program has so far awarded UConn scientists $20.7 million, with Yale and Wesleyan receiving about $17.5 million and $1.4 million, respectively.

For this third round, the SCRAC received 77 requests, seeking more than $30 million for research projects. UConn and its Health Center submitted 41 of the proposals; Yale University turned in 30, Wesleyan University, the University of Hartford, and Western Connecticut State University each submitted one proposal, as did two small biotech firms based in the state.

The applications were peer reviewed by a separate group of scientists and ranked for the state stem cell panel with respect to the ethical and scientific merit.

The SCRAC awards four types of grants:

  • Seed grants of $100,000 a year for two years to support early phases of research that is not ready for larger-scale funding.
  • Established Investigator grants of up to $250,000 a year for three years for scientists with a track record of independent research and grant support.
  • Group Project grants of up to $2 million over four years to support coordinated research among several investigators working toward specific goals that are beyond the scope of a single laboratory.
  • Core Facility awards intended to establish or maintain centers with the equipment and personnel necessary to operate a core lab that will be made accessible to the state stem cell research community.

In the third round of funding, the SCRAC awarded UConn investigators five seed grants, five established investigator grants, and one core facility grant.

Seed grant recipients are:

Yong Wang, Chemical, Materials, and Biomolecular Engineering, Storrs, “Hybrid Peptide/RNA Molecules for Safe and Efficient Gene Silencing in Human Embryonic Stem Cells,” $200,000.

Srdjan Antic, Neuroscience, Health Center, “Can Natural Neuromodulators Improve the Generation of Nerve Cells from Human Embryonic Stem Cells?” $200,000.

Stormy Chamberlain, Genetics & Developmental Biology, Health Center, “A Human Cell Culture Model of Angelman Syndrome for Drug Screening,” $200,000.

Ling-Ling Chen, Genetics & Developmental Biology, Health Center, “Novel Aspects of RNA Editing in Human Embryonic Stem Cells,” $200,000.

April Schumacher, Molecular, Microbial & Structural Biology, Health Center, “Evaluation of Homologous Recombination in Human Embryonic Stem Cells and Stimulation Using Viral Proteins,” $200,000.

Established Investigator grant recipients are:

Dashzeveg Bayarsaihan, Reconstructive Sciences, Health Center, “Williams Syndrome Associated TFII-I factor and Epigenetic Marking-out in Human Embryonic Stem Cells and Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells,” $500,000.

Linda Shapiro, Center for Vascular Biology, Health Center, “Mechanisms of Stem Cell Homing to the Injured Heart,” $500,000.

Zihai Li, Immunology, Health Center, “Therapeutic Differentiation of Regulatory T Cells from Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells for Immune Tolerance,” $500,000.

Theodore Rasmussen, Animal Science and Center for Regenerative Biology, Storrs, Prevention of Spontaneous Differentiation and Epigenetic Compromise of Human Embryonic Stem Cells and Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells,” $500,000.

Alexander Lichtler, Reconstructive Sciences, Health Center, “Reprogramming Fibroblasts into Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells Using mRNA Incorporated in Biodegradable Beads,” $500,000.

Core grant recipients are:

Ren-He Xu, Genetics & Developmental Biology, Health Center, “Continuing and Enhancing the UConn Stem Cell Core Laboratory,” $1.9 million.

“These grants will fuel the research of some of the most creative stem cell scientists in the world, allowing them to pursue significant new directions in stem cell research,” said Dr. Marc Lalande, professor and chair of the Department of Genetics and Developmental Biology, associate dean for research planning and coordination at the Health Center, and director of the University’s Stem Cell Institute.

“The state-funded core lab is playing a critical role in training stem cell scientists,” he added, “and ensuring they are prepared to move basic research findings from the lab to the clinic.”