Green light for stem cell program

SAN FRANCISCO — California’s stem cell agency last week approved a four-year, $151 million grant program focused solely on human embryonic stem cell research — a move that agency officials said will cement the state as a leader in the field.

The grants program was approved unanimously by the 29-member committee overseeing the state’s stem cell institute at the University of California, San Francisco’s new Mission Bay campus less than two weeks after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered that $150 million in state general funds be loaned to the agency. The first checks are expected to go out early next year.

The so-called “innovation” grants program will propel universities and nonprofit research institutes across California to the forefront of embryonic stem cell research, in defiance of federal restrictions upheld last month by President Bush’s first presidential veto, agency officials said.

“This is at the core of our mission and it is badly needed,” said Zach Hall, president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state stem cell agency.

The agency will fund three types of grants:

-Up to 25 comprehensive research grants of $400,000 a year for four years will go to veteran scientists with proven track records in human embryonic stem cell research to expand their focus or take it in new directions. Topics could include deriving new disease-specific stem cell lines, or colonies of cells, or studying the self-renewing properties of the cells.

-Up to 30 two-year seed grants of $200,000 annually will fund promising scientists with no track record in the field to explore innovative ideas.

-Up to 15 shared research laboratory grants will allow institutions to build dedicated labs for embryonic stem cell research, so long as those facilities are available to unaffiliated scientists nearby. Some money also will go to five institutions to provide training in basic stem cell science. Grants would range from $2 million to $2.5 million for capital costs, and up to $400,000 a year over three years for ongoing costs and supplies.

Factoring in administrative and other overhead costs, the grants program is expected to cost $69.5 million in its first year, $37 million in its second year, $25 million in the third year and $20 million in the final year, Hall said.

Human embryonic stem cell research has been held up because of restrictions on using federal funds on research that involves the destruction of human embryos.

In California, ongoing lawsuits have prevented the state from issuing $300 million annually in bonds approved for the research under Proposition 71, passed by voters in 2004.

But the governor’s loan helps the program temporarily bypass the legal snags on the money. In the first two years, the grants will be funded by the $150 million loan. Thereafter, officials said they were hopeful that all legal challenges to the state agency would be resolved in their favor.

Some members of the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee, the board that approves all policies and procedures at the stem cell agency, initially objected to limiting the scope of the grants to only human embryonic stem cell research.

“I’m a little uncomfortable with it,” said Richard Murphy, president and chief executive officer of the Salk Institute, a nonprofit biological research institute in San Diego. “It may be the next big discovery is not in human (embryonic stem cell research).”

Paul Berg, Nobel laureate and biochemistry professor at Stanford University, said the seed grants should allow researchers to experiment with animal cells.

“If they have a new idea, they’re not going to go right to human,” Berg said. “They would start with mouse embryonic stem cells.”

But Hall vigorously objected to accepting grant proposals outside the realm of human embryonic stem cells, saying the agency would be flooded with hundreds of requests it is ill-equipped to handle.

“We’re on training wheels here,” Hall said. “We’re faced with the challenge of getting these (grants) out while we’re building our infrastructure.”

The three patient advocates on the committee agreed, saying that the promise of cures lies in human embryonic stem cell research. Joan Samuelson, president of the Parkinson’s Action Network, who has Parkinson’s disease, expressed the emotions of many suffering from chronic conditions when speaking about the $150 million loan approved by the governor.

“When you live with a chronic, incurable or life-threatening disorder, every delay is an added day of struggle …” said a tearful Samuelson. “For the governor to have taken this action gives up great hope.”

Scientists and many patient advocates believe embryonic stem cells hold the key to cures because they have the ability to develop into any cell type in the body and to replicate indefinitely. By harnessing this potential, some researchers believe they can develop regenerative treatments and replacement tissues to cure conditions such as spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

Later this month, the stem cell agency will issue a request for grant applications to eligible scientists. Proposals will be reviewed in early to mid-December by a panel of esteemed scientists outside California.

The agency’s oversight board is expected to select the grantees in February, with checks to go out shortly thereafter, Hall said.

“We have 150 million reasons to be happy today,” said Roman Reed, who has a spinal cord injury.

By Rebecca Vesely, STAFF WRITER

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