Regenerating Our Economy With Stem Cells

Regenerative medicine may play a significant role in regenerating the economy of Southeast Michigan, according to medical researchers in the region. Having begun collaborating and co-sponsoring the 2010 World Stem Cell Summit, proponents believe that the growing research infrastructure will bring increased revenue for research facilities and staff and the ability to train new graduate students, develop new drug therapies, and spin off clinical businesses throughout the region.

The University of Michigan recently received $6.8 million in federal stimulus grants to accelerate its adult and embryonic stem cell research program. Tech Town, Wayne State University's research and technology park, received a $4.1-million loan/grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to complete construction of the technology incubator, including establishment of its Stem Cell Commercialization Center, which will expedite the translation of clinical research to commercial business development.

In announcing Michigan's designation for the 2010 World Stem Cell Summit (expected to draw 1,200 scientists) Bernard Siegel, executive director of the Genetics Policy Institute, a national stem cell research advocacy organization, boasts that "Michigan is fast becoming a biotechnology hub." Siegel cited the quality of research under way at the state's three major universities as well as their ability to translate that research into treatment. This past June, U-M's A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute established the Statewide Stem Cell Research Committee, which meets quarterly.

Stem cells are self-renewing and generate other cells in tissues. Given their role in development and regeneration of tissue, stem cells are at the core of developmental biology and clinical applications.
"Regenerative medicine is a big growth therapy," says James Eliason, Ph.D., director of the Tech Town commercialization center. "We have to attract more funding… but I see the advantages with the talent pool and with the low cost (lifestyle) structure (in the region) that could give advantages if they are fully exploited."

Tech Town needs to raise $3 million to equip the labs and cover three years of operational expenses before launching its program this summer. In addition to its regional partners, the center is also discussing stem cell research collaborations with Canada, United Kingdom, Sweden, and Hungary.

The infusion of funds for stem cell research will be "catalytic" for the U-M program, notes James Shayman, M.D., associate vice president for Research – Health Sciences. "The initial investment is made, but there's a big multiplier effect as setting up a center or consortium leads to significant amounts of external funding." Recent federal stimulus grants will underwrite the development of 1,200 square feet of dedicated space and staff for stem cell research in an existing building, he adds.

"The economic potential of stem cell research is limitless," explains Eva Feldman, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Taubman Institute. She says the field is the "new frontier" of medical research and is attracting investment from venture capitalists, the biotech industry, and pharmaceutical companies. In her research, Dr. Feldman is using stem cells to regenerate tissue damaged by neurological diseases. "We recently received FDA approval for the first human clinical trial of a stem cell trial for ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease). … We are just beginning to scratch the surface of stem cell science. I can almost guarantee that 10 years from now we will be treating diseases with stem cell therapies we haven't even dreamed of yet."

Tech Town has dedicated 2,500 square feet to its Stem Cell Commercialization Center, including a core laboratory and a laboratory for small companies marketing clinical products, according to Dr. Eliason. Through its "soft landing site," Tech Town hopes to attract international companies that want to develop products for American consumers. Companies can rent office and laboratory space, as well as contract with marketing and sales and other administrative services, without having to make an immediate major capital investment. It's expected that these companies will eventually establish facilities in the region.

The center will staff 15 to 20 laboratory and administrative personnel and will be available to U-M, MSU, and Wayne State clinical product researchers, Dr. Eliason says. "When I first proposed this center, I talked with people at the University of Michigan about it… I want to make what people are doing easier…providing services that they don't want to do in their labs. … If we establish a stem cell bank, we may have their lines in it as well. We'll then work out licensing agreements with various universities and institutes and what royalties will come from any profits."

The development of the Stem Cell Committee is part of Michigan's University Research Corridor established in 2006, Dr. Shayman explains. With 90 percent of the state's research performed at the three institutions, the state realized that promoting a more integrated approach to research among the universities would create a synergistic effect, resulting in an economic catalyst for the region and state as a whole, he adds. "There are things that we can do regionally…that even for an institution the size of the University of Michigan, it would be difficult to do. On many levels we have common goals and interests that need to be met."

Although much of the stem cell research activity will be in the area of basic science, there will be tremendous commercialization potential at the three institutions, in the form of new drug development, tissue engineering, and the use of stem cells as therapeutic agents.

It's important to consider stem cell research in the larger context of what is a rapidly expanding biomedical research sector in Southeast Michigan, according to Dr. Shayman. The university's purchase of the former Pfizer site in Ann Arbor (now known as the North Campus Research Complex) adds two million gross square feet of research space. It's greater than the size of the total research space that currently exists at the U-M medical school. "Our stated goal at the university is to go from a billion dollars a year in research expenditures to over $2 billion in 2017. This (stem cell research) is one area that we anticipate there will be significant growth and we will continue building programs that bring together talent across the university and across the region that will bring special skills to bear to do the kind of cutting edge collaborative science that will be possible with this." The U-M will also embed private start-up companies with their research facilities, he says.

The well-documented brain drain among technology and new economy talent from Michigan is particularly evident in university environments where many talented graduate students gain valuable knowledge and skills, then leave the state. Dr. Eliason believes that Southeast Michigan can become a national center for regenerative medicine and retain much of the research talent now leaving for other centers.

"There is huge potential for it," he explains. "We produce many more intelligent people than we can hire… There's an incredible amount of talent here." As the Tech Town commercialization center expands, significant growth will come from companies that spin off into the marketplace, he says, predicting that there will be six new stem cell companies developed within six years and that there will be "hundreds" of jobs available.

 "There is no question that stem cell research is one of the 'coolest' areas of medical science," adds Dr. Feldman. "It is where the future lies. If you are a young scientist, it's definitely an area you want to consider directing your career toward. That's why before the last election (the approval of Proposition 2 in Michigan's 2008 election) it was so difficult to attract the best researchers to the state. I can tell you from personal experience that I had recruits to my laboratory turn down my job offers specifically because of the state's ban on stem cell research. Now, a new era in research is beginning to dawn in Michigan, and we want to make this region one of the hot spots for this cool science."

Dennis Archambault...
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