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NIH taps versatile veteran to head new intramural stem-cell centre

Mahendra260a.jpgThe National Institutes of Health announced yesterday that it has finally found a director for its Intramural Center for Regenerative Medicine, a $52 million, seven-year initiative begun in 2010 “to create a world-class center of excellence in stem cell technology on the NIH campus,” as the agency puts it in this press release.

Mahendra Rao, a stem cell veteran who spent six years, until last month, as vice president of regenerative medicine at Life Technologies (formerly Invitrogen) in Carlsbad, California, will take up the new position later this month. A Bombay University and Cal Tech-trained MD/PhD who also headed neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging, “Dr. Rao’s varied experience makes him perfectly qualified to bring large groups together in order to move stem cell technologies through clinical trials and beyond to the clinic,” Francis Collins, the NIH director, said.

“It’s a terrific hire,” says Michael Werner, cofounder and executive director of the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine, a coalition of industry, academic, non-profit and patient groups that pushes for research and commercialization of regenerative medicine products. “He’s got the perfect skill set in that he’s got the background from academia and from industry. He understands how all the pieces fit together.”

Collins has pushed hard as NIH chief to speed therapies to the bedside, and that continuing effort is clearly a driver of the new stem cell center, which is funded from Collins’ discretionary spending pot known as the Common Fund. As the press release put it: “A major goal for the center is to build upon existing NIH investments in stem cell research to advance translational studies and ultimately cell-based therapies in the NIH Clinical Center.”

Rao will be well familiar with the challenges involved. As well as working at Life Technologies, He co-founded Q Therapeutics, a neural stem cell company based in Salt Lake City.

So far, the nascent NIH center has been funded at $2 million in each of the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years. (You can peruse the pilot grants it has so far awarded to intramural scientists here. ) Over the next five years, NIH plans to spend an additional $48 million on the center, according to Jim Anderson, who as director of the agency’s Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives oversees the Common Fund.

The aim is also to have the center be a source for both extramural and intramural scientists of stem cells — including induced pluriopotent stem cells — and, according to the press release, to supply scientists “with the supporting protocols and standard operating procedures used to derive, culture, and differentiate them into different cell types.”

While Common Fund commitments are time-limited, with no more funding guaranteed after five years from now, Anderson says: “our presumption is that the center is going to be of such value to multiple institutes that they will participate in funding” after the period of Common Fund support is over.

Yesterday’s announcement comes on the heels of other NIH-related stem cell news: one week ago, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit that aimed to shut down NIH funding for human embryonic stem cell research. The timing of the hiring announcement shortly after the lawsuit was thrown out is “completely coincidental,” says Anderson. “We have been working on this for a very, very long time and have been talking with Mahendra as the lead finalist for most of the year.”


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