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Record competition for stem cell grants means tough choices for state officials

A budget crunch could pour cold water on record interest in Md. stem cell research grants.

The competition for Maryland's stem cell research grants will be stiffer than ever as applications flood in next month, forcing officials to be more selective even as scientists worry that the state's fiscal problems and a new administration in Annapolis may mean smaller budgets in the future.

The Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission received a record 240 letters declaring intent to apply for $10.4 million in grants, officials said this month. While the majority came from researchers, more than a dozen came from startups and other companies and half a dozen for work testing therapies on humans — proof that the 8-year-old program is boosting the state's biotechnology industry, officials said.

But that also means the state likely will reject more applications for the grants than in previous years. And with no funding promises from Gov.-elect Larry Hogan and state budget cuts looming, researchers worry there will be less to go around in 2016 and beyond.

The uncertainty comes just as advancements in stem cell science are making more research possible, threatening progress in Maryland even as other states surge forward, researchers said.

"In California, they have $3 billion. Here, we have $10 million a year. It is very hard," said Ricardo Feldman, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "Not all of us who have exciting results are going to get it, and some of us who do not get funding will not be able to continue what we started, and that will be very sad."

At an annual symposium on state-funded stem cell research this month, state stem cell commission officials said they received letters of intent from a record 16 companies as well as seven proposals for clinical work and 144 proposals for "translational" work — research that aims to turn basic science into viable therapies. Applications are due Jan. 15.

Historically, the awards have gone more for university research and projects that are still at least a few steps away from being used in hospitals, but the surge in commercial and clinical work is a product of the state's long-term commitment to the grants, said Dan Gincel, the stem cell research fund's executive director.

The grants help research projects advance to a stage where they can attract backers like drug companies or other for-profit investors, who are more discriminating in the projects they support since many end up going nowhere.

"A long-term commitment is extra important for something so high-risk," Gincel said. "You gain trust that this is going somewhere."

There aren't many investors for researchers to turn to early on, said Jennifer Elisseeff, a professor of biomedical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University who has been part of teams receiving $920,000 in state grants over the past two years. She and colleagues are exploring how to stimulate stem cells to regrow tissues, a project she called "kind of basic science-y but also very applied."

Research opportunities have multiplied in the years since the state program was established. While traditionally researchers using stem cells often focused on tissue growth therapies, other scientists are tapping growing opportunities to use stem cells to learn more about troubling diseases.

The Hussman Institute for Autism is opening a lab in the University of Maryland BioPark where researchers will use drawn blood to create primordial stem cells that can be transformed into neurons, allowing them to test treatments on the brain without cutting anyone open or subjecting anyone to experimental drugs. Such research uses what are known as induced pluripotent cells, which are reprogrammed from adult cells to revert to stem cells and can then be transformed into any type of cell.

In autism research, scientists have learned what sections of the genome contribute to symptoms. Applying that knowledge to stem cells, they can explore how those genetic mutations are changing nerve cell behavior. This neuroscience side of the research is rather new, said John P. Hussman, who runs the Hussman Funds group in Ellicott City and uses much of the proceeds to fund autism research, including the new lab.

At the Lieber Institute for Brain Development across town at the Johns Hopkins Science and Technology Park, researchers are using a similar technique to better understand the mechanisms behind schizophrenia.

Feldman and colleagues at the University of Maryland are doing similar work that could be applied to Gaucher's disease, an enzyme deficiency common in those of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, and possibly Parkinson's disease. In some cases, Gaucher's causes fatal neurological damage in children and infants. Stem cell techniques are allowing the researchers to learn why that happens in some cases and not others.

"You could study the brain after the patient dies, but it's not the same," Feldman said.

Aside from the scientific advances, Feldman said he has seen the state grants fuel growth in the local biotechnology industry. Just in the past year, four of his researchers moved on to work locally for companies including Lonza Group, ATCC and Battelle.

In 2010, the grant program directly supported about 500 jobs in the state, according to a 2010 study by local economic research firm Sage Policy Group. The author of that study — who is advising Hogan on economic development policy — said he anticipates even more jobs.

"My very strong feeling is that Maryland is on the verge of a remarkable amount of commercialization coming out of life sciences research taking place at Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland and elsewhere," said Anirban Basu, CEO of Sage Policy and a member of Hogan's transition team. "We are on the cusp of some really big things."

Basu said he plans to include various initiatives aimed at boosting the state life sciences industry in a memo for the Hogan administration. In some cases, that could include suggested changes to help the state get more bang for its buck, but Basu said he doesn't plan to propose major revisions to the stem cell program.

A spokeswoman for Hogan said the governor-elect hasn't made any decisions yet and plans to "examine every angle of the issue" before doing so.

"Right now, our focus is on fixing the state deficit and working to restore our economy so we can afford to better fund research and development," Hannah Marr said in an email.

Projections of that budget deficit worsened this month. Over the next 18 months, state revenue is expected to fall nearly $1.2 billion short of expenses, suggesting a necessary $420 million in budget cuts before the current fiscal year ends in June and shrinking the budget for the next year by $750 million.

Advocates said they hope the stem cell grants emerge unscathed. But even under Gov. Martin O'Malley, who in 2008 pledged a $1.1 billion investment in biotechnology research, including stem cells, funding for the program has dwindled and stagnated.

After the program received $20 million under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., O'Malley pledged $25 million for the program in his first budget. But more recently, the state's commitment has fluctuated between about $10 million and $12 million each year. California's stem cell investment program already has paid out $1.3 billion of a pledged $3 billion in state money.

Gincel acknowledged the state stem cell commission faces tough choices. Higher selectivity appears likely in this year's applications, which are approved or rejected by the end of May. Beyond that, it's unclear.

But it's enough to make researchers nervous.

"If you start having to cut into all of the really good grants, how do you prioritize them?" Elisseeff said. "If it gets really tight, it almost becomes a random process."

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