Millions of state dollars soon will start flowing to Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota to support a new regenerative medicine partnership aimed at finding cures for illnesses such as cancer, Parkinson's disease and heart disease.
Tucked within a budget bill passed by the DFL-led Legislature this month and signed by Gov. Mark Dayton is $4.5 million for the regenerative medicine partnership and ongoing annual funding of $4.4 million. Dr. Andre Terzic, director of Mayo Clinic's Center for Regenerative Medicine, said these dollars will help Minnesota become a hub for regenerative medicine.
"The state of Minnesota through this event, the passage of this bill, is essentially embracing regenerative medicine as the future of health care," Terzic said.
Minnesota joins about 15 other states that have begun investing in this type of research.
So just what is regenerative medicine? It has to do with tapping into the body's innate ability to heal itself as a way to cure chronic illnesses. A prime example is a promising Mayo Clinic study focused on heart disease. The initial clinical trial used stem cells taken from a patient's bone marrow. Those cells were guided into becoming cardiac cells, and those cells then were injected into the patient's' heart to help grow healthy heart tissue.
Traditionally, Terzic said medicine has focused on trying to treat the symptoms of these chronic illnesses. Regenerative medicine offers the potential to actually cure them.
"It is no longer science fiction," he said.
House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, helped lead the push for the regenerative medicine funding. A former surgical nurse who worked on a transplant unit, Murphy said she had a chance to see up close how advances in organ and bone marrow transplants transformed the lives of seriously ill patients. She paid a visit in September to the university's Stem Cell Institute to learn more about the work being done there. It inspired her to introduce a bill seeking state dollars for regenerative medicine research. Senate Majority Leader Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, authored the bill in the Senate.
Despite the legislation being backed by two key legislative leaders, Murphy is the first to admit she didn't expect to get much money for the research this year.
"We were going to have an opportunity to talk about the issue, but we probably wouldn't be able to do a very robust funding proposal. I was wrong about that," she said.
Her low expectations had to do with the fact it was not a budget year, so there were limited dollars available to be spent on new items. Add to that a long list of funding requests, and the odds seemed stacked against the project.
But the proposal quickly won the backing of influential lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who wanted to see it advance. Among those was Senate Finance Committee Chairman Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul. Heading into the final budget negotiations, Cohen said the House was reluctant to make a big investment in the research this year. But he and other senators pushed hard for it, making it clear any budget deal had to include a significant investment in regenerative medicine. Given the promise this research has for bringing relief to people suffering chronic illnesses, Cohen said it made sense to move ahead now instead of waiting until next year.
"It's one more year where we fall further behind on the research," he said.
The hope among lawmakers is that the state dollars will encourage additional private investment in regenerative medicine in the state, which will lead to new discoveries that can be commercialized. Terzic said in the coming weeks representatives from Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota will be working on the partnership details and crafting a regenerative medicine blueprint for the state.
This is not the first time the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota have teamed up for research. In 2003, the two organizations established the Minnesota Partnership for Biotechnology and Medical Genomics, which is also funded with state dollars.
And while the money allocated for the project is certainly are important, Terzic said the importance of the legislation goes well beyond dollars and cents. It will help put Minnesota on the regenerative medicine map.
"The dollars are always significant but I think what is even more critical is the commitment at the state level to in essence single out this new and evolving medicine," he said. "For us, that is a major achievement."