A Vatican-backed US company that researches an alternative to embryonic stem cells on Friday received a $1.2 million dollar government grant, despite independent studies that question whether their product even exists.
NeoStem, a New Jersey-headquartered company, is investigating very small embryonic-like (VSEL) cells found in adult bone marrow that they say may be able to regrow into different kinds of tissue.
The research has stirred controversy due to NeoStem's marketing partnership with the Vatican and three independent studies that have been unable to confirm the cells are even there.
The latest peer-reviewed grant, totaling $1,221,854, was provided by the US National Institutes of Health for research on an experimental drug that could regenerate bone tissue damaged by periodontitis, a serious gum disease.
The company, along with other partner institutions, has already received $4.5 million in government research grants, including from the Department of Defense and the NIH.
"We are very excited about our progress towards the IND (investigational new drug) submission for what we expect to be the first human clinical study for our VSEL Technology and for the support of the NIH," said a statement by NeoStem chief executive Robin Smith.
The phase two trial could begin later this year or early next, and would be conducted in cooperation with investigators at the University of Michigan, the company said.
In July, scientists at Stanford University said in the journal Stem Cell Reports they could not replicate NeoStem's findings of VSELs in the bone marrow of lab mice.
Instead, they found that what was purported to be VSELs—about five micrometers in diameter—were either debris or dead cells.
Two previous studies published in the journal PLoS One in 2012 and 2013 also described unsuccessful attempts to locate the cells.
The field of stem cell research has raised hopes of finding cures for everything from blindness to paralysis, but the work is controversial and fraught with legal barriers over patents.
Embryonic stem cell research has been a political lightning rod, opposed by religious groups and individuals who find fault with destroying a human life form.
Meanwhile, stem cells isolated from adult tissues are receiving plenty of attention, but researchers have yet to find a way to use them on a large scale to safely and efficiently regenerate organs and tissues.
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