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Stem cell research could be new economic engine

By Steven L. Stice
University of Georgia

Robert M. Nerem
Georgia Institute of Technology

President Obama’s anticipated action on the isolation of new embryonic stem cell lines is welcome news to many, but frankly, it will have little impact on speeding stem cell therapies for the majority of Americans who need them. Those in need of therapies will continue to wait.

The initial outcome of the president’s act is simple: researchers in states such as California and New York that made major investments to fund and create new stem cell lines will have more flexibility. Instead of duplicating laboratories - one for federal funding and one for state funding - labs in these states can combine stem cell lines in one laboratory, freeing resources for additional research.

However, advancing stem cell therapies will require more financial investment from both the public and private sectors.

Little new research will happen in Georgia if only new lines are allowed and dollars aren’t available to turn them into therapies. That isn’t to say we aren’t in the game. Thankfully, despite political setbacks, stem cell researchers in Georgia haven’t sat on the sidelines during the Bush administration. They’ve made major advances.

It’s important to note that although politics put us behind some of the more progressive states, Georgia institutions have a proven, competitive record for being awarded scarce federal stem cell funds. So the notion that Georgia and stem cells don’t mix is wrong.

Significant research funding has been awarded to researchers in the state through several sources, including the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation. Even the U.S. Department of Defense is funding regenerative medicine and, indirectly, stem cells. Continued funding is keeping Georgia fiercely competitive in fundamental areas. We are poised and ready to implement advancements in this field.

Progress Report

Georgia researchers are alive and well in the stem cell race. A 2006 study showed that 67 percent of the state is supportive of stem cell research.

The University of Georgia is advancing the basic understanding of stem cells in cancer and drug discovery and is determining the effectiveness of new stem cell therapies. The Medical College of Georgia is advancing nonembryonic stem cell therapies. Emory University recently announced their participation in a cell therapy for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and a few weeks ago hosted a meeting on the use of cellular therapies in the treatment of lung injury.

The Georgia Tech/Emory Center on regenerative medicine is combining stem cells with biomaterials and developing related enabling technologies. GTEC recently brought together industrial and university leaders in a workshop on stem cell biomanufacturing that focused on translating advances in basic stem cell biology into the therapies needed for patients.

So what is the potential impact of future stem cell research in Georgia? Already, through federal research grants, Georgia is training the next generation of stem cell scientists for an ever-expanding commercial market. Economic impact studies suggest that stem cell companies will have sales exceeding $3 billion per year by the end of this year with annual growth between 10 percent and 30 percent.

Brain drain

While some of our trained stem cell graduate students have been recruited to fledgling stem cell companies in Georgia, most of our best students are being snatched up by Ivy League schools and leading stem cell companies in other states as soon as their training is complete. If we don’t create opportunities within our state, we will continue to lose these leaders and fall further behind. We have access to and can train the work force for local stem cell companies. Keeping them in Georgia is the issue.

The stem cell train has left the station, and Georgia’s scientists are on it. We now need the public to get on board. Obama can help stoke the fires on that train with additional funding that will give our state a two-for-one benefit: improving health and improving economic development.

The foundation has been laid in our state and can be leveraged for high-paying stem cell jobs that will help improve the quality of life for Georgians. Georgia’s higher institutions educate students that are going elsewhere for high-paying careers. Our goal should not end at education; rather, we also must attract the companies to the state to keep our best here in rewarding careers. Georgians must actively steer the stem cell economics train toward our state instead of standing on the platform and watching it go elsewhere.

We, as a state, have a competitive set of complementary skills that competes with anyone in the world. To move the momentum forward, researchers across the state have banded together to form the Georgia Stem Cell Initiative. More information about this group, as well as how to get involved, is available at the Web site www.georgiastemcell.org

(Steve L. Stice is a Georgia Research Alliance Scholar and director of the University of Georgia Regenerative Bioscience Center and is the founder of ArunA Biomedical, Inc., a Georgia stem cell company.

Robert M. Nerem is the Parker H. Petit Professor for Engineering in Medicine at the Georgia Institute of Technology and director of the Georgia Tech/Emory Center for the Engineering of Living Tissues, a National Science Foundation-funded engineering research center.)

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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