Kansas University’s Adult Stem Center Reaches Tipping Point

The $4 million center was funded by social conservative legislators, but faces challenges as the first clinical trials are completed.

by Andy Marso, The Kansas City Star / July 30, 2018

(TNS) — Five years ago, at a time when Kansas lawmakers were cutting funding to other parts of higher education, Republicans in the Legislature voted to give the University of Kansas Medical Center something it hadn’t asked for: an adult stem cell research lab.

Socially conservative legislators and Gov. Sam Brownback hoped it would highlight adult stem cell research as a better alternative to more controversial embryonic stem cells.

The state has put about $4 million in taxpayer money into the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center since then, and it’s won over some of its early skeptics.

But now the center is facing the greatest challenge in its short history.

KU Med in the past year reduced the size of the lab by more than half. Then the center’s director left this summer, taking his research and his federal grants to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

KU officials say they remain committed to the lab. But its now-former director, Buddhadeb Dawn, told legislators in March that the reduction in space from 8,200 square feet to about 3,680 square feet had hamstrung the research.

“The space is utilized for R&D (research and development) related to cell isolation and expansion, process development, analytical methods development, quality control testing and clinical grade manufacturing,” Dawn wrote in his annual report to lawmakers. “The reduction in laboratory space limits the basic research and early developmental research plans due to the need to segregate certain functions from a regulatory standpoint.”

Dawn declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he’s too busy with his new job as chairman of the department of internal medicine and chief of cardiovascular medicine at the UNLV School of Medicine. Dawn, who started at UNLV on July 1, said he still hopes to serve on the stem cell center’s board of directors.

Kay Hawes, a spokeswoman for KU Medical Center, said via email that a new director for the center, appointed by executive vice chancellor Robert Simari, could be named as soon as next week.

In the meantime, the lab is working under the direction of Richard Barohn, the vice chancellor for research.

“Research and education projects continue and the staff meets regularly with Dr. Barohn and Dr. Simari,” Hawes said.

Hawes said the stem cell lab’s space was reduced to give lab space to KU’s new incoming chair of internal medicine.

“While the stem cell center had long-term plans for the space, it had been underutilized at the time,” Hawes said. “None of the stem cell center’s budget is used for space, and the medical center is regularly evaluating space needs based on the requirements of its schools, departments and centers.”

During Dawn’s last full fiscal year as director, the stem cell center received about $772,000 in state funding. About $400,000 of it went to pay salaries for the center’s staff of five and a consultant. An additional $118,000 went to research supplies, and about $68,000 was spent on the annual adult stem cell research conference the center hosts. The rest of the expenses were miscellaneous items, none totaling more than $41,000.

Medical centers across the country have delved into stem cell research for decades looking for new treatments to rebuild and repair damaged tissues.

Embryonic stem cells are derived from human embryos, often those that go unused during the in-vitro fertilization process and are then donated. Researchers value them because they’re pluripotent, meaning they can become any type of cell in the body: skin, brain, muscle, etc. But they’re controversial because of their origins. The Catholic Church, for example, opposes embryonic stem cell research.

Adult stem cells are derived from mature tissues and generally can’t become other tissues. But new techniques and technologies have allowed scientists to create “induced pluripotent stem cells,” which are adult stem cells that, through genetic manipulation, are changed into other types of cells. But the National Institutes of Health says the jury is still out on whether they’re equivalent to embryonic stem cells.

The Kansas Legislature committed to funding the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center for 10 years when it began.

Some legislators and members of the Kansas Board of Regents were initially skeptical of the project because of its role in the political debate over the ethics of embryonic stem cell research and because KU hadn’t requested it.

After a few years, even some conservative Republicans who believed in the center’s mission expressed concerns that it wasn’t on a path to financial self-sufficiency and would always rely on state dollars.

But those reservations started to dissipate last year as the center closed in on its first clinical trials.

“The past several presentations (to the Legislature) that have been done, even some of the people who were originally against it are now strongly in favor of it,” said Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican who has been the stem cell center’s top proponent. “I think, gosh, there’s so much potential there.”

Four studies are now listed on the center’s website. But Dawn was the principal investigator on three of the four, including a Phase II trial for using stem cells to repair tissues damaged in heart attacks that is sponsored by California-based Capricor Therapeutics.

Dawn also had secured about $377,500 in NIH grants for that trial. That research has followed Dawn to UNLV.

Hawes said KU Medical Center remains excited about the research that’s still happening at the stem cell center, including a clinical trial using umbilical cord stem cells to treat graft-versus-host disease. Joseph McGuirk, the director of the blood and marrow transplant program at the KU Cancer Center, is running that trial.

Pilcher-Cook said that she still sees a bright future for the stem cell center but that the partnership with KU comes with constraints.

“We are definitely at a stage where we need to grow (the lab), but we need the latitude to be able to do that,” Pilcher-Cook said. “You know, that’s one of the things with being under the jurisdiction of KU Med. We have to get permission to do everything.”

In his presentation to legislators in March, Dawn finished by writing that “a significant shift in organization and investment, and focus on aggressive growth is critically needed” to reach the goals that were set when the stem cell center was established. He said a proposal to that effect was being drafted for consideration by the 2019 Legislature.

The center’s next director will decide whether to proceed with that proposal.

©2018 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.