University scientist granted $473,000

By Sara Jerome

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich recently announced that Dorothy Sipkins, assistant professor of medicine at the U of C Hospitals (UCH), will receive over $473,000 of a $10 million grant that the state has earmarked for stem-cell research.

Sipkins is one of 10 researchers at hospitals and universities statewide who will benefit from the Illinois Regenerative Medicine Institute, a new program that places Illinois among only four states in the nation to dedicate public funds to stem-cell research. The other three states are New Jersey, Connecticut, and California.

“It’s really thrilling to have this kind of seed money to get projects off the ground,” Sipkins said. “Hopefully it will lead to…further avenues for research.”

Sipkins said that without the grant money, she would have had to turn to external agencies and the federal government for funding.

Sipkins, who joined the U of C faculty in January after working at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, said that new faculty members receive start-up funds “to get their labs off the ground,” but that most apply for supplementary funds from external agencies.

The competitive grant application process was judged by medical professionals. Harinder Singh, professor of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology said that the University submitted two projects that were considered for grant funding: Sipkins’s project and a larger project that ultimately did not receive grant money.

“They decided mostly to fund smaller initiatives in this go-around,” Singh said.

Singh said he expects Illinois to dedicate more funds to stem-cell research within the next fiscal year.

“The state is actually contemplating even broader support that would require a referendum in order to be sustained,” he said.

He said $10 million “is not a huge amount of money for research in this area,” adding that California dedicated $3 billion over 10 years by means of a referendum.

Singh said that stem-cell research “represents a really new set of therapeutic possibilities for molecular medicine.” Stem-cell research could lead to improved treatment of highly damaged tissue, such as the heart after a heart attack. He also named diabetes and spinal cord injuries as medical problems that could benefit from stem-cell research.

John Easton, spokesperson for the UCH, said that the ultimate goal of Sipkins’ work is to “decipher the molecular signals that blood-producing cells use to travel to specific areas where they can survive and regenerate.” Sipkins studies cells on the molecular level, investigating both normal and cancerous stem cells derived from adult bone marrow in order to observe how the normal cells are affected by malignant growth.

Sipkins works with adult stem cells rather than the highly controversial embryonic stem cells. Researchers who work with embryonic stem cells are severely restricted when using federal, but not state, funding.

Sipkins, who said she watched reporters “jump down the governor’s jugular” during recent press conferences, was positive about the program.

“Hopefully the state will continue this program,” she said. “This will be an issue for the politicians and the voters to decide.”