Donor support and current technology help draw federal funds
Most major medical discoveries don’t happen in a single lab; they result from close collaboration across multiple institutions, often over many years. That’s why it was big news when University of Minnesota researchers learned in October that they had received a seven-year collaboration grant to help develop the high-potential field of stem cell therapy.
Under the grant, awarded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), one of the National Institutes of Health, University researchers will partner with a research team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to understand how and when stem cells commit to becoming a certain type of blood cell.
“What we want to know is, how do various stem cells decide to become blood or heart or blood vessels? How can you enhance that process so it becomes highly efficient and produces a large number of those cells?” says Daniel J. Garry, M.D., Ph.D., executive director of the Lillehei Heart Institute and leader of the University’s research team.
Scientists are already able to coax stem cells into becoming specific types of cells, Garry says, but they aren’t yet able to make enough cells to potentially treat a human patient.
The collaboration award provides each institution with $750,000 per year and brings together researchers from the heart, lung, blood, and technology research fields. Scientists from partner institutions will meet several times a year to exchange ideas and talk about how they can accelerate one another’s work.
Sixteen other universities throughout the country, forming eight more partnerships, have received similar awards from the NHLBI.
The award not only provides University investigators with a steady source of funding for this research, Garry says, but it also connects them with other leading stem cell labs across the country.
“The point of these networks is to foster collaborations not only with your partner but across the entire network,” he says.
Jonathan Slack, Ph.D., director of the University’s Stem Cell Institute, was a pivotal partner in identifying ways to leverage the University’s strengths and providing the foundation for a standout grant application, Garry says.
“This was a golden opportunity for us,” Slack says. “We already had expertise in embryonic stem cell/iPS cell biology, hematopoietic development, cardiac development, decellularized organs, cell transplantation, and imaging technology — in other words, all the technology required.”
Philanthropy is another reason behind the University’s grant success. Last year the Engdahl Family Foundation funded an interdisciplinary study by cardiology professor Jay Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., and stem cell scientist Dan S. Kaufman, M.D., Ph.D., aimed at identifying which factors are important in promoting cardiac regeneration. That study provided enough preliminary data to make the University a strong contender for the NHLBI grant, Garry says.
“Gifts that support novel research ideas often set the table for our scientists to later earn much larger grants from agencies such as the NHLBI,” he says. “A gift to start-up research like this often gets a huge return on the donor’s investment.”
And, thanks to the exchange of tools and information through the NHLBI-funded collaboration, the return on investment is only likely to grow.