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Published: Friday, 1/9/2009

Wolverine State's future could be in stem-cell biology

DETROIT - If there is anyone in Michigan who has reason to be optimistic about the state's future, it is Dr. Sean Morrison, director of the University of Michigan's Center for Stem Cell Biology.

Newly freed to conduct cutting-edge research and waiting for soon-to-be-available federal funds, he can at last begin to build an institute that not only opens new frontiers in science; it also could conceivably help the state build a new high-tech future.

"We could have some new projects up and running by the spring," he said. "We are interviewing a prospective new faculty member today."

If it hadn't been for Michigan voters' decision to legalize embryonic stem-cell research last fall, the 40-year-old expert in immunology would likely have been the one interviewing - for a job outside the state. Four years ago, UM scored a coup when it lured Dr. Morrison, a Canadian often cited as one of the world's top young scientists, to Michigan. He came to take charge of what is widely regarded as the most promising frontier in biological research.

But the years since have been ones of increasing frustration. Nationally, President Bush twice used his veto power to continually block expanded funding for embryonic stem-cell research. But the situation in Michigan was even worse; the state had one of the nation's most restrictive anti stem-cell laws.

That made it highly difficult to recruit faculty members for the center, or even hang on to those it already had. Dr. Morrison's own research wasn't affected by the ban; it has to do with adult stem cells in the blood and central nervous system.

But he recognizes that "we need to work with all kinds of stem cells, and embryonic stem cells offer the most promise." That is because they are the most flexible. Researchers believe that they will eventually be able to take cells from an embryo and stimulate them to take on the properties of virtually any cell in the body.

That means that, in time, organs may be regenerated, and diseases like macular degeneration or Parkinson's reversed. Nobody expects that to happen overnight. But, as Dr. Morrison said in response to another question, "I can't say where we will be in five years because the field changes so dramatically every year."

Morally, however, some groups have been opposed to embryonic stem-cell research because it destroys human embryos, which they say is equivalent to taking a life. However, as Dr. Morrison noted, the only embryos researchers are allowed to use are discarded and donated ones from human fertility clinics.

These are leftover small, undifferentiated balls of cells. If not used for research, they don't become babies; they are eventually destroyed as medical waste.

Last fall, supporters of embryonic stem-cell research succeeded in getting a constitutional amendment on the Michigan ballot. In November, despite vast sums spent to defeat it, 53 percent of Michigan voters opted to legalize embryonic cell research.

However, that doesn't mean cutting-edge research could start overnight. "What's ironic is that the opponents charged this would lead to unregulated research," Dr. Morrison said. "The truth is that for every project, we have to go through a complex regulatory process." As a result, the university cannot yet even accept embryos anyone wants to donate.

However, the center hopes to have embryonic stem-cell projects up and running by spring. They are likely to have more space, too, though it isn't clear where.

Last month, UM bought the now-abandoned vast, 174-acre campus that was Pfizer Inc's former research campus; it includes more than 2 million square feet of office and laboratory space. If some of it is not devoted to stem-cell research, it will likely free up other lab space for Dr. Morrison's troops.

Sean Morrrison hasn't said exactly where he sees stem-cell research at the University of Michigan going, except that "We would like to complement other research going on elsewhere," rather than duplicate it. For example, he is concerned that there is not much ethnic diversity in the stem-cell material now being studied. "We wouldn't want to develop drugs that work on white people but not on African-Americans," he said.

As gratifying as the November election was, he is looking forward to another burst of good news soon. President-elect Barack Obama is strongly in favor of federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research and intends to end the ban, hopefully almost immediately.

When he does, Dr. Morrison will be ready with grant applications. This will all take time. Nobody in Michigan should expect to see vast centers to cure spinal cord injuries this year. Dr. Morrison acknowledges Michigan has to face the "legacy costs" of starting long after places such as Toronto and California have poured resources into embryonic stem-cell work.

But at least, the fetters are truly off - and this is a field full of uncharted territory. While much of the state is trying to cope with the near-collapse of its core industry of the past, in Ann Arbor, the Center for Stem Cell Biology is aimed at the future.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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