Health Care

New director says KU stem cell research center needs more money, not more space

The new director of a stem cell research facility at the University of Kansas Medical Center said he’s not concerned about recent reductions in the facility’s space. But he does think it needs more money.

Sunil Abhyankar, a KU oncologist who specializes in blood cancers, was introduced to the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center Advisory Board as the center’s new director Monday night.

He replaces Buddhadeb Dawn, who had led the center since it was established in 2013 by then-Gov. Sam Brownback and socially conservative legislators hoping to highlight alternatives to more controversial embryonic stem cell research.

Dawn, who left this summer for a job at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, told legislators in March that KU’s decision last year to shrink the lab from 8,200 square feet to about 3,680 square feet had hampered the research.

But Abhyankar said Monday it’s not a problem.

“Where we are right now, for all the projects we have right now, we have adequate space,” Abhyankar said. “In the future if we have more projects coming in, we’ll have to see how we can expand into other areas of the hospital.”

Sunil Abhyankar.jpg
Sunil Abhyankar University of Kansas Medical Center

But Abhyankar did say the facility needs more funding, which may not be welcome news to legislators who have in the past said they wanted a timeline for it to become financially self-sufficient.

The Kansas Legislature has put about $4 million in state money into the center since it was established, and is committed to about five more years of funding at about $750,000 a year.

State Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Republican from Shawnee who spearheaded the creation of the center and sits on the advisory board, said KU officials shouldn’t expect much more.

“The thing we’ve seen other states do is throw money at it,” Pilcher-Cook said of stem cell research. “In, what is it, California, over a billion dollars — 3 billion. That’s what’s called throwing money at it and it goes down a dark hole. We cannot do that in Kansas. We don’t have the resources to do it, nor is that the most effective way to get the research we want and need for the patients.”

Pilcher-Cook said she was concerned about the reduction in space KU has allocated to the center and asked whether the University of Kansas Hospital could be a financial partner.

KU Hospital receives no state funding and is run by an independent hospital authority. It is a separate entity from KU Medical Center, which is the state-funded research and teaching arm of the University of Kansas Health System.

Robert Simari, the executive vice chancellor of the medical center and a member of the stem cell advisory board, said the hospital is already supporting the research center’s operations indirectly, but is unlikely to provide direct funding.

“They provide unrestricted mission support to the (medical) school and to the university that provides salary and resources that are available to everybody, so they are a huge partner for us,” Simari said. “Are they a specific (financial) partner in this center? No I don’t think they’ve been a specific partner.”

Pilcher-Cook was one of the socially conservative legislators who pushed for the creation of the center. It does not use embryonic stem cells, which 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 can become any type of cell in the body: skin, brain, muscle, etc. But they’re controversial because of their origins. The Roman Catholic church, for example, opposes embryonic stem cell research.

Instead, the center uses adult stem cells, which are derived from mature tissues and generally can’t become other tissues. New techniques and technologies have allowed scientists to genetically manipulate them 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.

On Monday, the advisory board discussed changing the stem cell facility’s marketing strategy to draw in more philanthropic dollars and the likelihood of getting industry money as pharmaceutical companies buy into breakthroughs at the center.

Abhyankar and fellow blood cancers researcher Joseph McGuirk said industry interest may not be far off. At a conference the KU stem cell center hosted last weekend, Abhyankar said people from other medical institutions were asking about how to access cells the center has derived from Wharton’s jelly, which is found in the umbilical cord. And the center has enrolled its first patient in a clinical trial using adult stem cells to treat graft-versus-host disease, a serious complication of bone marrow transplants.

“He is improving,” Abhyankar said of the patient.

But clinical trials take time and some of the advisory board members warned that private industry doesn’t usually jump in with money until it knows there’s a clear path to market and profitability.

Still, McGuirk said KU is committed to the adult stem cell center and predicted positive things under Abhyankar’s leadership.

“We’re very bullish on MSCTC and its future,” McGuirk said. “Sunil and I, we’ve been working together for over 20 years now and when he puts his mind to something, boy, we haven’t failed at anything.”

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