By Kim Coghill

Washington Editor

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine will use a $58.5 million anonymous gift to advance their stem cell research program that will focus on selecting, modifying and reprogramming human cells, molding them into therapeutic transplants for everything from Parkinson's, ALS and diabetes to heart failure, stroke and spinal cord injury.

The funding will be directed to the university's Institute for Cell Engineering, which received $23.8 million toward the cost of a new research building from the state of Maryland, guaranteeing appropriate space for the research. Officials at Johns Hopkins, located in Baltimore, said the state grant attracted the attention of the anonymous donor.

While the institute will advance Hopkins' already strong program of embryonic stem cell research, scientists will extend that work into adult stem cells as a source of tissue.

"In science, very few things have happened that have had as much significance as what we are trying to do today," Elias Zerhouni, Hopkins' executive vice dean said during a telephone conference call Tuesday. "Two years ago Dr. Gearhart and others isolated stem cells which have the potential of curing many diseases. That discovery, thought to be impossible five years ago, has led us to create an initiative to understand the fundamental ways by which these cells can in fact reprogram themselves and help cure diseases today that are incurable."

John Gearhart, director of obstetrics at Hopkins, is credited with the discovery two years ago of stem cells in human fetuses.

In many diseases and injuries, cell replacement therapies provide the best hope for patients, Gearhart said.

As part of the research project, the institute will have a section for basic research and will include scientists from various departments who will conduct translational research.

"We thought at Johns Hopkins that it was important to engage in a scientific inquiry about reasons and the potential avenues by which this field of science can be promoted further by enabling us to get a multidisciplinary team of investigators that will crack the mysteries behind the behaviors of these cells," Zerhouni said.

One of the boldest areas of research will be cellular reprogramming experiments in which parts of the DNA of several cells can be modified to create novel cells with highly specialized and controlled functions, he said.

Chronic and degenerative disorders are a target of this approach, including heart disease, diabetes and metabolic liver disease. But the research is not necessarily disease-driven, Zerhouni said.

He acknowledged the controversies associated with research that manipulates human cells, notably stem cells, "but it is in the best interest of the public to have not-for-profit, science-based institutions like Hopkins take a leading role."

Ethical questions concerning stem cell research are slowly beginning to take the forefront in political debates since Bush officials said they oppose using federal funds to support research on embryonic stem cells.

Within the last six months, the Bethesda, Md.-based National Institutes of Health finalized guidelines related to funding research on human pluripotent stem cell research. (See BioWorld Today, Aug. 24, 2000.)

The rules prohibit the NIH from funding the derivation of human pluripotent stem cells, but permit the funding after the cells have been collected.

And although no money thus far has been granted, scientists fear the looming threat of the government yanking the funds.

During a conference telephone call Tuesday, Gearhart said it would be a tragedy if the federal government reversed the decision to allow funding for embryonic stem cell research.

"So far all I have heard is that the president does not support it, but I cannot predict what they will do," Gearhart said. "If that funding is not there, we will continue to rely on donors. But this money is extremely limited."