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UMass stem cell lab to close

Funding to run out by end of the year

By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / June 28, 2012
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The stem cell bank that was a marquee piece of Governor Deval Patrick’s effort to bolster the life sciences industry will run out of funding at the end of the year and close, state and University of Massachusetts Medical School officials said Wednesday. The state invested $8.6 million in public funds to establish the bank at the medical school’s Shrewsbury campus.

That decision in 2008 was seen then as a bold statement of support for research on human embryonic stem cells during a time when federal funding for work on the controversial cells was restricted. But advances in technology and changes to federal policies rapidly made the bank obsolete, state officials said.

The laboratory grew and stored human stem cells, which are capable of becoming any cell in the body, and made them available to scientists nationwide for use in experiments to study diseases such as diabetes and spinal cord injuries. When it is dismantled, several thousand vials of stem cellswill be sent back to the research centers where they originated, and the equipment will be given to other UMass labs.

Susan Windham-Bannister, president of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a quasi-public agency that oversees the $1 billion life sciences initiative, defended the decision to initially fund the stem cell bank. She said there are many examples of technology that in hindsight are unnecessary, “but at the time it was conceived, when the investment was made, it was absolutely state of the art.” The center, she said, was one of them.

Originally, the bank was seen as a repository for embryonic stem cell lines that were being created but were not eligible for federal funding under Bush-era restrictions. The field has evolved significantly since then, with President Obama’s loosening of restrictions on federal funding and the development of new technologies for making stem cells.

Still, stem cell banks are seen as useful by some. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, for example, is preparing to invest $10 million in its own stem cell banking initiative, and another $20 million to underwrite the creation of stem cells from patients with specific diseases.

Massachusetts Senate minority leader Bruce Tarr, Republican of Gloucester, said he was concerned that lawmakers had not been told the bank would close.

“Given the fact that this is a resource that was created by an act of the Legislature, I would hope anyone seeking to change its status would consult with the Legislature,” he said. “The notion has always been we have been working hard to make Massachusetts a leader in stem cell research, and I don’t know how ceasing the operations of the stem cell bank advances that goal.”

Researchers who had developed and sent some of the 18 embryonic stem cell batches, called lines, that are currently available at UMass expressed their disappointment.

“I think the closing of the UMass bank, where we had anticipated maintaining a lot of our lines, means we will have to come up with an alternative,” said Dr. George Q. Daley, a stem cell scientist at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute who has sent about half a dozen stem cell lines to the bank. He said he received a call Tuesday from Joseph Laning, who joined UMass Medical School in 2010 to run the bank, alerting him that the bank would be closed.

“It’s a complicated issue, and I’m sad to see the effort not be supported,” Daley said. He said that over the past few years, Harvard researchers have sent out many stem cells to labs that request them, but that it is a time-consuming and expensive process that takes away from time that could be spent on research.

The bank receives one to two requests a week, according to Dr. Terence Flotte, dean of UMass Medical School.

Flotte said nine people who work for the bank will need to find new jobs within the university or elsewhere, and equipment such as incubators, safety hoods, and freezers that were purchased with the majority of the nearly $9 million investment will be distributed to biomedical researchers who will work in a large new research building opening later this year, partly underwritten by $90 million from the state Life Sciences Center.

He emphasized that a UMass stem cell registry — an online resource that allows scientists to look up particular stem cells, understand how they have been used in the past, and connect with the laboratories that have them — will remain intact.

Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said the bank was a small part of a life sciences bill that is playing an important role in economic development.

“It’s certainly unfortunate that this investment hasn’t panned out as planned, but I think it’s a very different case from investing large amounts of money in a single company,” Widmer said.

Some scientists said they were not surprised to learn of the endeavor’s failure. Rudolf Jaenisch, a stem cell biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said his impression was that the banking effort never fully got off the ground. It did not announce the availability of its first stem cell lines until 2011.

He said that when the initiative was proposed, prior to Obama’s loosening of federal restrictions on funding, it might have seemed “an interesting possibility, which could be very important, so I think the intentions were right, but the reality then maybe made it less important.”

The bank may also have struggled with the expense of growing and storing cells, suggested Erik Forsberg, executive director of WiCell Research Institute, a nonprofit that runs a stem cell bank in Wisconsin and makes about 30 shipments a month to scientists.

“Because the cost of banking and distributing this type of cell is quite high,” he said, “it’s hard to generate sufficient funds to make the operation sustainable.”

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.

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