Stem Cell Cash Causes Delight ... And Controversy

Nine projects and two networks will share more than ? 4.8 million in the first round of funding from a new Swedish stem cell research programme. A total of ? 8.2 million will be distributed over 5 years in a joint effort between the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the Swedish Association of Diabetics Research Fund, and the Swedish Research Council (SRC).

The funded research will look at a broad range of questions, from molecular characterisation of stem cell proliferation and differentiation to the derivation of insulin-producing beta cells from human embryonic stem cells. ?The entire stem cell field is on the threshold of development. These grants are extremely important for advancing research so that we can identify areas with the greatest potential", says Harriet Wallberg-Henriksson, secretary-general of the Scientific Council for Medicine at SRC.

Fittingly, the two networks receiving funding represent the two major lines of stem cell research. The derivation and characterisation of human embryonic stem cells is the focus of the network directed by Dr. Lars Ährlund-Richter at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. The programme aims to determine ?a reproducible state-of-the-art procedure" for establishing and expanding embryonic stem cells under good manufacturing practice conditions to enable their use in future clinical protocols. The new stem cell lines will be available to scientists on a collaborative basis. In addition, a Web-based databank containing information about the established stem cell lines will be created to serve as an ?interface" to the scientific community.

Meanwhile the Swedish network for stem cell plasticity, directed by Dr. Sten Eirik Jacobsen, will bring together collaborators from Lund, Stockholm, and Copenhagen to study the potential of adult human stem cells to develop into cells typical of other organs in the body.

Close and effective collaboration will be essential if the work is to be successful, according to both the network leaders. Jacobsen stresses that this is something that could improve in Swedish research. ?We need to get better at taking advantage of each others competence," he points out.

However, fruitful collaborations require the right people with the right training. To further strengthen Swedish stem cell research there are plans to launch a programme for advanced research training within the stem cell plasticity network. Jacobsen estimates that the network will recruit five to six postdoctoral researchers and as many graduate students. Mobility of researchers will be encouraged, and PhD students will receive training in at least two different laboratories. As Jacobsen explains, ?We want to prioritise resources to projects and people that will tie groups together, rather than increase the size of the already existing groups."

Ährlund-Richter also sees the need for more hands in the lab. ?We have a need for competent personnel," he says, adding that he is interested in bringing in people from abroad to achieve results faster. ?There are groups [abroad] that have come as far or further than us, but there are few others in Sweden that have," he says, explaining that it saves time to hire scientists that are already trained in stem cell work. Australia and the United States are likely locations for such candidates, Ährlund-Richter believes.

The network directors agree that conditions for stem cell research in Sweden are good, with liberal legislation and a high level of acceptance by both scientists and the public. If there is room for improvement, it is in terms of access to funding. It might sound a little strange, given the brand-new stem cell programme, but Ährlund-Richter would like to see more home-grown sources of funding. ?We [our group] have two US grants and now this," he says, but ?we can?t depend too much on getting funds from abroad."

Meanwhile, however, SRC is under attack for its role in the new funding programme. The critics, led by Dr. Thomas Edlund, a professor of molecular genetics at the University of Umeå, are of the opinion that SRC should not take part in directed research programmes, and that the successful groups would never have received funding of such magnitude had the grants been subject to ?open and free competition."

In a round-robin e-mail seeking support from Swedish researchers, Edlund refers to the idea of stem cell plasticity as ?idle imaginings", pointing to recently published data (for example, A. J. Wagers et al., Science Express, 5 September 2002) that conclude that transdifferentiation of circulating hematopoetic stem cells is ?an extremely rare event, if it occurs at all." Edlund is sufficiently irate to have demanded that a commission of inquiry be set up to ?reduce the financial damages" to Swedish research, and replace the responsible people at SRC and the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research with ?individuals of competence and integrity".

Per Omling, director-general at SRC, denies that anything except scientific quality has been a factor in selecting the winning proposals, and explains that an international committee consisting of five independent experts from the stem cell field reviewed the applications before making recommendations to the funding organisations. ?Independent prioritising and highest scientific quality are the principles behind funding by the SRC," he responds.

So for the time being at least, it appears that many Swedish stem cell researchers should be quite content with their lot. Ährlund-Richter, for one, is looking to the future. Having spent the past 2 years in preparation, ?this means that we begin," he points out, ?not that we deliver."

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