Friday, April 27, 2012

Univ. of MI develops new stem cell line as Legislature threatens to withhold funding

The University of Michigan may be in the midst of a battle with state GOP lawmakers over its controversial embryonic stem cell research, but that's not stopping the university from strengthening its stem cell research portfolio.

The school recently placed its second embryonic stem cell line on the National Institutes of Health's nationwide stem cell registry. U-M's new addition to the list further solidifies the school's position as a major player in stem cell research and allows government-backed researchers to use the line in research.

It's also likely to add tension to a battle brewing in Lansing between the Republican lawmakers that decide U-M's budget and university administrators who have declined to tell the Legislature exactly how many human embryos are used during research. Legislators requested that U-M disclose how many embryos it uses more than a year ago but the 50-plus page report university president Mary Sue Coleman turned over to lawmakers in December did not include the exact number of embryos used.

State Rep. Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, a member of the subcommittee that decides how funds are doled out to universities, recently accused U-M of thumbing its nose at the legislature.

Legislators have threatened to withhold up to $7 million in performance funding from U-M if administrators do not fully disclose how many embryos U-M uses.

Coleman says it's unlikely the school will disclose that information.

"Even though we were asked specific questions we don’t collect the data in this way and we think that focus on these issues, these specific little issues, were trivializing the complexity" of stem cell research, Coleman said recently. "I want to continue to put this in context.... We are doing this according to the strict regulations of the federal government."

Meanwhile, U-M researchers are optimistic their new stem cell line will be instrumental in developing a cure for Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a debilitating neurological disorder that causes foot, leg and hand muscles to degenerate early in life.

The new line was derived from a 5-day-old embryo the size of a period. That embryo was created for reproductive purposes, tested and found to be affected with the genetic disorder, deemed not suitable for implantation, and would therefore have otherwise been discarded when it was donated in 2011. According to U-M Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease is one of the most common inherited neurological disorders and affects one in 2,500 people in the United States.

Said co-director of the U-M Consortium for Stem Cell Therapies Gary Smith: "Once again, the acceptance of these cells to the registry demonstrates our attention to details of proper oversight, consenting, and following of NIH guidelines."

U-M has several other disease-specific lines submitted to NIH and awaiting approval. The school's first embryonic stem cell line was accepted to the registry in February.

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