Dr. Jakub Tolar says that something unexpected happened after he met with Rep. Erin Murphy last September to explain the need for a concerted Minnesota research effort on stem cell therapy.
"She actually did something," said Tolar, who heads the University of Minnesota's Stem Cell Institute.
Murphy spearheaded legislation, which Gov. Mark Dayton recently signed, that will provide about $50 million over the next decade as seed money for research into "regenerative medicine" by Minnesota scientists.
The new law will place Minnesota among about 15 other states that have backed such research with special taxpayer funds, according to Dr. Andre Terzic, director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine, who testified before a Senate committee in March. California was the first, when voters passed Proposition 71 in 2004 to set up the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) with $3 billion in funding.
Murphy, a registered nurse and majority leader of the Minnesota House, said she left Tolar's office "completely inspired" that the state has an opportunity to become a leader in research that will help cure ailments such as dementia, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Treatment of these chronic, costly diseases threatens to overwhelm the state's health and human services budget as the population ages.
"I'm excited about this piece of legislation," Murphy said Friday. "I'm still pretty amazed that it got done."
Sen. Katie Sieben, assistant majority leader, carried companion legislation in the Senate.
Terzic said regenerative medicine holds the promise of going beyond treating symptoms to providing cures — and that it's important for the state to stand behind the research if it expects to compete for venture capital and major philanthropic gifts.
"We're looking here for so-called definitive solutions," Terzic said. "It's no longer science fiction."
Transparent grant process
Minnesota pioneered stem cell therapy in 1968, when Dr. Robert Good performed the first bone marrow transplant. But Tolar said that contrary to a widely held impression of Minnesota medical research, "We are not the best at everything we do."
Tolar argues that every Minnesotan has a relative who suffers from a chronic disease, or will do so in the future. "We are reminded that we are just a single cancer cell … just one strange virus away from the same end, from the same fate. So this is personal," he told legislators in March.
While medicine has made great progress treating acute illnesses, he said, it's hitting the ceiling on chronic diseases. "Everything we do is just turning the knob a little bit," Tolar said.
Between the U and Mayo Clinic, he said, Minnesota has the expertise to conduct leading research in the basic science to change that.
The new law provides $4.35 million in grant funds next year. A committee of outside experts will evaluate proposals based on how they affect Minnesota communities, whether they hold the promise of creating jobs, and possible industrial and clinical applications, Tolar said. He said the research must take place in Minnesota and cannot be farmed out. "There has to be a palpable benefit for people who live in this state," he said.
Final funding decisions will fall to a five-member board that includes a representative from the U, Mayo, private industry and two others, possibly including a patient representative.
Tolar said it takes $750,000 to $1 million to fund a research team, so he expects the appropriation to bankroll three to four proposals initially. He said the selection process will be transparent.