Ten UConn Researchers Receive State Stem Cell Funding

One of the awards will fund preclinical trials at a new start-up company based at the Health Center.

Ten scientists at the University of Connecticut and its Health Center received grant awards Tuesday totaling $5.7 million from the Connecticut Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee, to support their pioneering embryonic stem cell research.

Included in the awards to UConn scientists, was $1.29 million to Chondrogenics Inc., a new start-up company based at the Health Center, to fund its ongoing preclinical testing using chondrogenic cells derived from human embryonic stem cells to repair joint cartilage damaged by injury or aging. This is the first preclinical trial of a stem cell-derived therapy funded by the state stem cell research committee.

Nine of the state grants were awarded to scientists based at the UConn Health Center in Farmington, while one large proposal from the Storrs campus was funded. This was also a $1.29 million dollar grant, awarded to a multidisciplinary team of scientists whose research is focused on the cellular and molecular mechanisms of drug-induced liver injury.

Liver injury, caused by a large number of drugs taken by patients, is a major clinical problem that also hampers drug development. The researchers, led by Urs Boelsterli of the School of Pharmacy, and Theodore Rasmussen and Winfried Krueger of the Center for Regenerative Biology, aim to convert patient-derived skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cell lines, then redifferentiate the cells into liver cells (hepatocytes) to assess genetically determined predispositions to drug-induced liver disease. The medical outcome of this research will be the development of genetic tests that can be used prior to giving patients drugs, as well as a stem cell-based platform to aid the discovery of drugs with hepatoprotective properties.

“These awards recognize the expertise of University scientists in several promising research areas focused on the treatment of disease,” said Marc Lalande, director of the University of Connecticut’s Stem Cell Institute, Physicians Health Services Professor, and chair of the Department of Genetics and Developmental Biology in the UConn School of Medicine. “Our scientists are not only advancing the fields of stem cell biomedicine, but also contributing to our state’s economic development.”

“I am thrilled and grateful for the support from the state of Connecticut,” said Caroline Dealy, an associate professor in the Center for Regenerative Medicine and Skeletal Development at the Health Center, who with colleagues developed the novel process to replace cartilage through use of stem cells. The state’s three-year grant award will allow Dealy, who is the scientific advisor to Chondrogenics Inc., and her research team to generate data so that the full therapeutic potential of the use of stem cells for osteoarthritis repair can be realized.

Earlier this year, the University of Connecticut filed a patent for the novel process developed by Dealy, while the UConn Research and Development Corp., which partners with faculty to develop the commercial potential of their research discoveries, founded the new company. Dealy expects to relocate the fledgling company to the technology incubator in the Health Center’s new Cell and Genome Sciences Building, which also houses UConn’s Stem Cell Institute. The move will provide “an ideal setting for our project, which is aimed to develop a stem cell-based therapy for osteoarthritis,” said Dealy.

The grants awarded Tuesday were part of $9.8 million distributed to 20 investigators by the Connecticut Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee in the sixth round of the state’s stem cell research grants-in-aide program established by legislation in 2005.

For this round, the committee received 79 preliminary requests – 37 from UConn and Health Center scientists – seeking nearly $33.1 million for research projects. To date the SCRAC has disbursed $59 million, of which UConn stem cell scientists have garnered $30.4 million, more than any other institution in the state.

Some of the other UConn scientists who received awards include:

Gordon Carmichael, professor of genetics and developmental biology, to study the Cytoplasmic dsRNA response in human embryonic stem cells, $750,000.

Hicham Drissi, associate professor of orthopedics, to devise a multidisciplinary approach for the treatment of articular cartilage damage using human ESC-derived chondrocytes, $650,000.

David Han, associate professor of cell biology in the Center for Vascular Biology, to study the phosphorylation dynamics of pluripotent stem cells, $570,000.

Xue-Jun Li, assistant professor of neuroscience, to study the production of motor neurons from human pluripotent stem cells, $337,740.

Four Health Center investigators, Jonathan Covault, Xin-Ming Ma, Alissa Resch, and Kristen Martins-Taylor, each received $200,000 “seed” grants for innovative early-stage research projects aimed at advancing stem cell biology in Connecticut.