Federal grant anchors Texas embryonic stem cell research

HOUSTON -- (September 4, 2007) -- An $8.7 million five-year grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences promises to kick-start research with human embryonic stem cells in Texas, involving scientists from Baylor College of Medicine and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, said its BCM principal investigator.

"We hope this will become a regional cornerstone for human embryonic stem cell research," said Dr. Margaret Goodell, professor of pediatrics and molecular and human genetics at BCM and director of the STaR Center. All stem cell lines used for the project will be those approved by the National Institutes of Health.

"This project offers the promise of synergism in research by getting great people to work together," said Goodell, adding that everyone involved in the project worked collaboratively in writing the grant proposal and developing the kinds of research that they wanted to pursue.

"We made a case for working together toward a common goal," she said. "We have great science in our four projects, but more than that, we have tried to form a foundation for doing human embryonic stem cell research in Texas. We will teach people the crucial techniques and we will support them in their research."

The grant sets aside money for pilot or seed projects. Three have already been allotted, but the members of the group plan to award three $50,000 grants for the succeeding four years. That will significantly increase the numbers of Texas researchers working in the area, she said.

"We need to understand the basic biology of human embryonic stem cells not only to harness their therapeutic potential, but also to answer some of biology's most intriguing questions," said Dr. Susan Haynes, who oversees stem cell grants at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. "Because embryonic stem cells can become any cell type in the body, they provide a window to understand a vast number of biological processes. These lessons, in turn, may help us prevent, cure, or treat a host of diseases."

The first three seed grants went to Drs. Karen Hirschi, Aleksandar Rajkovic and Xin-Hua Feng, all of BCM. Goodell plans to solicit future projects from BCM and MD Anderson.

The four major scientific projects and three scientific cores include:

  • Project 1, led by Dr. Zhou Songyang of BCM, which involves the study of proteins that interact with the crucial protein NANOG, important for its ability to prevent the action of the differentiation of the embryonic stem cells into various tissues.
  • Project 2, led by Dr. Austin Cooney of BCM, focuses on a protein called Germ Cell Nuclear Factor that represses so-called pluripotency genes, which are central to tissue differentiation.
  • Project 3, led by Dr. Michelle Barton of MD Anderson, focuses on the protein p53, which can suppress the action of NANOG.
  • Project 4, led by Dr. Thomas Zwaka of BCM, focuses on a determining how a newly discovered protein called RONIN works in human embryonic stem cells.

Goodell will lead the administrative core that also sponsors the pilot projects to be financed with grant money.

A training and culture core led by Goodell, Zwaka and Hirschi, all of BCM, will train scientists in the Texas Medical Center and beyond in the techniques of working with human embryonic stem cells.

A genetic modification core offers development of techniques for working with human embryonic stem cell lines as well as production of cell lines crucial to the four projects. It will be led by Drs. Richard Behringer of MD Anderson, Michael Kyba of UT Southwestern and Zwaka.