BETHESDA, MARYLAND -- Flexible in their fate, human embryonic stem cells can become any one of the more than 200 cell types that make up the human body. Because of this flexibility, stem cells hold promise for solving mysteries about the fundamental biology of all cells.
"America's scientists need powerful tools to find better ways to diagnose and treat health problems," said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. "Understanding the biology of stem cells can help fill in the blanks about what causes cells to misbehave in disease."
To elucidate the basic biology of stem cells, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) is funding three Exploratory Centers for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research. NIGMS is awarding $2.2 million for the first year of funding for the three 3-year awards, which over their lifetime are expected to total more than $6.3 million. The source of the human embryonic stem cells is limited to federally approved stem cell lines listed on the National Institutes of Health Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry.
By awarding the center grants, NIGMS hopes to establish human embryonic stem cells as a unique model system to help researchers understand the extraordinary complexities of human biology.
"What gives stem cells their unique property to self-renew? When, how and why does a stem cell decide to differentiate, becoming another kind of cell? There is so much basic research we must conduct before we can unlock the potential of these cells and fulfill their promise," said NIH director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D. "NIGMS is leading the way toward answering these tremendously important questions, many of which may be common to all kinds of cells."
A key goal is to train basic scientists to learn how to work with the finicky cells. Many researchers have had a difficult time getting stem cells to thrive in an undifferentiated state in the laboratory. The shortage of scientists with expertise in stem cell research and the lack of molecular tools to study stem cells are currently rate-limiting steps in advancing the progress of embryonic stem cell research.
"NIGMS recognizes a critical need to increase the scientific workforce in this important area of 21st century biomedical research," said Judith H. Greenberg, Ph.D., acting director of NIGMS. "We also want to help the research community overcome some of the technological barriers that have prevented biologists from developing stem cells into a powerful model system for probing health and disease."
Each NIGMS center is a collaborative effort involving several researchers who will work together on specific pilot projects. The three new center awards were made to:
-- University of Washington, Seattle/Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (C. Anthony Blau, M.D., principal investigator) -- $753,000 for the first year of funding to improve methods to culture, maintain, manipulate, differentiate and compare the 12 federally approved human embryonic stem cell lines. The group will also seek to identify the molecular signals that enable stem cells to self-renew, evaluate methods for genetically modifying stem cells and study how stem cells choose to become specialized cell types such as neurons and heart cells.
-- University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor (K. Sue O'Shea, Ph.D., principal investigator) -- $778,00 for the first year of funding to apply knowledge and expertise in cell biology, developmental genetics and tissue biology to the study of human embryonic stem cells. The group will establish a core laboratory for maintaining and distributing human embryonic stem cells to the University of Michigan scientific community, develop research tools to study stem cells and support education and training on the use of the cells.
-- WiCell Research Institute in Madison, Wisconsin (James Thomson, D.V.M., Ph.D., principal investigator) -- $669,000 for the first year of funding to create a central core facility to provide cell tissue culture support, including media preparation, quality control and routine chromosomal analysis of cultured stem cells. The group will also examine in detail how stem cells make the transition from primitive cells to becoming neurons. The researchers will study how certain signals cause stem cells to lose their ability to self-renew, as well as how molecules produced by "feeder cells" support the self-renewal process.
The three new awards are the first exploratory centers involved in research on human embryonic stem cells to be funded by NIH. In addition, NIH has awarded grants for stem cell-related investigator-initiated research, training and career development as well as for stem cell preparation, testing and distribution. NIGMS has also recently awarded 14 administrative supplements to scientists at various academic institutions across the United States to rapidly incorporate research on human embryonic stem cells into their ongoing federally supported research goals.
For more information on NIGMS initiatives related to human embryonic stem cells, see: .
For more information on stem cells in general, see: .
NIGMS' mission is to support basic biomedical research that lays the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention.
For information about the awards, contact Alison Davis in the NIGMS Office of Communications and Public Liaison at (301) 854-0633 to speak with NIGMS acting director Judith H. Greenberg, Ph.D., or NIGMS cell biologist Marion Zatz, Ph.D.
NIGMS is one of the 27 components of the National Institutes of Health, the premier federal agency for biomedical research. More information on NIGMS can be found at .
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