Facing a midnight deadline, Dr. Elias Zambidis scrambled yesterday to stake his claim to some of the millions of dollars in state stem cell research funding earmarked for Maryland scientists.
"Whew, I got it in," said Zambidis, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, after submitting his proposal to explore the use of embryonic stem cells to treat congenital blood diseases. "We're really excited about this grant, because it allows us to do things the federal government can't or won't fund."
The Maryland Stem Cell Commission could not immediately say how many applications it had received for the $15 million available. But Hopkins researchers were among the most interested: About 50 submitted proposals, said Dr. Chi Dang, Hopkins' vice dean for research.
Becky Ceraul, a spokeswoman for the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said 17 scientists from the school applied.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the General Assembly agreed on the funding program after President Bush set narrow limits on how federal funds could be used for embryonic stem cell research. The legislation does not prescribe what kinds of research may be funded.
The grants are of two types: for startup projects that could receive up to $100,000, and for better established research that could receive a maximum of $500,000. After officials ensure the applications are complete, they will send them to scientists outside of Maryland, who will rate the projects based on their scientific merits.
The commission will then use the ratings to choose among the proposals and hopes to announce by March which projects will receive state money, said Ren?e Winsky, interim executive director of the Maryland Technology Development Corp, which provides administrative support for the commission.
In early December, the commission received 91 letters of intent from researchers who planned to apply, Winsky said. TEDCO will not announce for several days how many proposals were submitted, she said, allowing time to ensure the applications are complete.
She said the commission intends to distribute the entire $15 million this year. "Future funding," she said, "is dependent on the governor-elect and the General Assembly putting more money in the fund."
Dang said the Hopkins proposals were for a mix of the two types of grants. He said the fund has encouraged some researchers to explore the idea of using stem cells in their research for the first time.
"It really opens up a lot of doors," he said. "I think the small [grants] should allow for some really creative projects."
Meredith Bond, director of the department of physiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said the fund got her thinking about new projects she could do in her laboratory.
"We haven't done anything in the lab with stem cells," said Bond, who studies heart disease. "This whole initiative got us thinking about what we could do with stem cells."
Bond said she applied for one of the smaller grants to investigate ways of using embryonic stem cells to repair the heart muscle of people who have suffered heart attacks.
She was still unclear, however, whether she could use equipment she had bought with federal funds - which limit scientists to certain stem cell lines - for research on a state-funded project on embryonic cells.
"It's all very hazy right now," she said.
As Maryland researchers were putting the last touches on their proposals yesterday, a new twist was introduced to the ethical debate over stem cells.
Researchers from Wake Forest University School of Medicine reported successfully harvesting amniotic stem cells, which appeared to have many of the benefits of embryonic stem cells but might avoid their ethical drawbacks.
Nancy Paltell, associate director of the Maryland Catholic Conference's Respect for Life department, said amniotic cells pose "none of the ethical issues regarding embryonic stem cells because no human life has to be destroyed to get them."
She said the new findings should help to refocus the debate over how public funds should be used.
But Dr. Paul S. Fishman, the director of research for the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Department of Neurology, cautioned it was too early to tell how the amniotic cells could be used.
"I would seriously be surprised if they have all the potential of an embryonic stem cell," said Fishman, who submitted a grant proposal to the state yesterday. His research focuses on using adult stem cells to treat diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
He said research on all types of stem cells should be funded because the different cell types are good for different kinds of research. He is curious, he said, to see how the commission will deal with the ethical issues surrounding the grant proposals they'll receive.
"What's a person going to do when confronted with something that has a very strong scientific rating but concerns them ethically?" he said. "That's the question each commissioner is going to have to deal with."
Sun reporter Jonathan Bor contributed to this article.