Human embryonic stem cells have properties that make them uniquely valuable for studying virtually any cellular process. Despite their promise for research and therapeutic purposes, stem cells are difficult to grow in the laboratory and scientists do not know how to reliably direct them to become a specific cell type.

"If we are to realize the tremendous potential of stem cells, we urgently need more fundamental knowledge about their basic biology and more scientists trained to work with them," said Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D., director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

To address these needs, NIGMS has funded three new Exploratory Centers for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research. These centers, which will receive an estimated $9 million over three years, join three others that the institute funded in September 2003. All of the centers are limited to using federally approved stem cell lines listed on the National Institutes of Health Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry.

"These centers are a crucial step in establishing the infrastructure for scientists to address essential questions about human development and cell differentiation," said Marion M. Zatz, Ph.D., program director for the center grants.

Each center will establish a core facility to support and train scientists and to define the growth conditions and molecular characteristics required for maintaining human embryonic stem cells in an undifferentiated state. Scientists at the centers also will work on specific pilot projects to advance fundamental knowledge of human embryonic stem cell properties and functions.

The new centers are:

-- Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City (Gordon Keller, Ph.D., principal investigator)--$965,150 for the first year of funding to study the growth, differentiation and genetic alteration of human embryonic stem cells. The group will focus on developing methods to genetically modify stem cells and will study the molecular signals that cause them to differentiate into red blood cells.

-- Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City (Eric Bouhassira, Ph.D., principal investigator)--$965,032 for the first year of funding to study how specific proteins control the growth and differentiation of human embryonic stem cells. The team will also analyze genetic networks and study DNA replication and gene expression in stem cells.

-- The Burnham Institute in La Jolla, California (Evan Snyder, M.D., Ph.D., principal investigator)--$1,060,699 for the first year of funding to study the molecular signals that enable stem cells to self-renew and specialize, develop a novel imaging technology to study the cells in real time, and improve methods for the cells' growth and maintenance. The group will also lead training courses for other scientists.

In addition to funding the six center grants, NIGMS supports individual grants and grant supplements to advance stem cell research.

To arrange an interview with Jeremy M. Berg or Marion M. Zatz, contact the NIGMS Office of Communications and Public Liaison at 301-496-7301. More information about NIGMS initiatives related to human embryonic stem cells is available at nigms.nih/funding/stemcells.html. More information on stem cells in general is available at stemcells.nih

NIGMS (nigms.nih) is one of 27 components of the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The NIGMS mission is to support basic biomedical research that lays the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

Kirstie Saltsman
NIH/National Institute of General Medical Sciences

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