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When Penn established the Institute for Regenerative Medicine in late 2007, it made a major statement about the University's commitment to stem cell research.

And even with struggles for funding in the biomedical sciences and some political opposition to stem cell research, Penn isn't having trouble fulfilling that commitment.

The University has contributed $30 million to the institute - which opened last November - coming from the School of Medicine and the School of Veterinary Medicine.

The main challenges to funding remain the national climate on stem cell research, from its controversial nature to a lack of federal money available in the sciences.

The latter, however, is the prime concern, as polls show that a majority of Americans support stem cell research - which researchers say can bring relief to people suffering from a range of diseases - said John Gearhart, the director of the institute.

"It's one person who's standing in the way of seeing increased funding for stem cell research," he said, referring to President Bush's long-standing opposition to the research.

Gearhart said that a majority of Congress members support stem cell research. Bush, however, has vetoed bills that would have authorized federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Even after a new president takes office in January, tightness in the federal budget likely won't provide much leeway for change, Gearhart said.

Institutions need to have a strong presence in Washington to sway the legislature to favor funding in the sciences, said Gearhart, which universities generally do quite well.

Apart from university representatives, "we rely heavily on patient-based groups, whether it's Alzheimer's or Parkinson's" to get political attention, he added.

As the National Institutes of Health have had fewer federal funds available over the past four years, researchers have turned to other sources, including state and private pools.

"Pennsylvania has some mechanisms into biomedical research," Gearhart added, which have benefitted stem cell researchers at Penn and the University of Pittsburgh.

State funding for certain types of biomedical research is important but limited, accounting for less than 20 percent of total funding. Embryonic stem cell projects do not receive funding in many states, including Pennsylvania, for similar federal reasoning.

"It's not a robust time to do biomedical research," said Gearhart, adding that despite tough times, the quality of the researchers at Penn makes the school resilient.

The University hopes integration of faculty by the IRM will yield stronger research and attract more grant money.

The appointment of Gearhart as a Penn Integrates Knowledge professor "concretely represents the University's determination to move forward" in stem cell research, Provost Ron Daniels added.

Regardless of financial and political barriers, Penn is contributing "whatever we can in the field" of stem cell research, Daniels said.

Outreach programs will also play a considerable role in the IRM.

Such programs will inform the local community of the benefits of stem cells, and differences between adult stem cell research and its controversial counterpart, embryonic. Initiatives will range from education programs in middle and high schools to stem cell courses in the University designed for students outside the biological sciences.

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