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Stem-cell center gets $10 million

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05stemcell1_mdFamed Newport Beach bond trader Bill Gross is donating $10 million to UC Irvine to support human embryonic stem-cell research at a campus that’s competing hard to become a mecca in the young and controversial field.

Gross and his wife Sue gave UCI $2million for such things as equipping, staffing and operating the university’s new Stem Cell Research Center. They’ve pledged an additional $8 million toward a proposed permanent institute that could cost $80 million.

The Grosses, one of the California’s richest couples, have donated or pledged more than $53 million for various health and education projects over the past 18 months, making them a growing force in philanthropy.

“Despite its understandable controversy, there is so much promise in stem-cell research,” said Bill Gross, founder and chief investment officer of Newport Beach-based PIMCO, which manages more than $610 billion in assets worldwide.

Responding to e-mails, he added: “Scientists hope to use stem cells to better understand disease; foster the development of new, more effective drugs; and even generate healthy cells and tissues to replace those damaged by disease or injury. We’re just doing our part in making strides toward saving the lives of the more than 100 million children and adults who are battling incurable illnesses around the world.”

The $10 million is the couple’s first major gift to UCI and represents a big lift to the university’s efforts to compete with science centers in San Diego, Los Angeles and the Bay Area to get the money it needs to study human embryonic stem cells, which have the potential to become any of the more than 200 cells in the body.

Such researchers as UCI neurobiologist Hans Keirstead harvest stem cells from five- to seven-day-old embryos. He then duplicates the “master cells” and looks for ways to convert them into cells that could ease or repair spinal cord injuries. Keirstead has used such cells to restore some movement in paralyzed rats, bringing him huge publicity and a favorable profile on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

Other scientists are studying the same types of cells for their potential in treating diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

The research is controversial because removing stem cells involves destroying surplus embryos that were donated to medical science by fertility clinics.

Some people feel that this is the equivalent of destroying potential human life.

Such ethical concerns led President Bush to announce in August 2001 that federal funding could be used only on 60 existing lines of embryonic stem cells. Scientists later determined that about two-thirds of those lines are not usable.

The president’s decision also led to Proposition 71, a ballot measure in which California voters were asked whether they wanted to underwrite an unprecedented $3 billion in stem cell research. The proposition was approved in November 2004 but has been held up by legal challenges.

The delays surrounding Prop. 71 prompted schools like UCI to try to raise private money to keep their small stem-cell operations going.

Irvine has been lagging behind such schools as USC, which landed a $25 million donation for its stem cell program, and UC San Francisco, which obtained a $16 million gift. Several people associated with UCI, including Ed Thorpe, who helped found the campus, and attorney Paul Marx, courted the Grosses. Some of the courting came while the UCI Medical Center was embroiled in a scandal involving its liver transplant program.

The Grosses say they are deeply interested in health issues. But they didn’t begin to commit to UCI until after they watched the “60 Minutes” profile of Keirstead, broadcast in late February.

“No matter what the problems are at the medical center, the work that Hans Keirstead and his team are doing is too persuasive to overlook because of trouble in other places at the school,” Gross said.

Keirstead, the son of a former Lutheran pastor, also has become one of the country’s most pointed critics of the Bush administration’s decision to fund research only on stem-cell lines that existed as of August 2001.

“One of the great crimes, really, of current federal policy is that is it prohibiting new faculty members – professors – from moving into the stem-cell field,” Keirstead said. “That means that there are very, very few laboratories for young students to apply to. I turn down three to four student applications per week.

“Current policy is crippling the future of stem-cell research. The Gross gift allows us to overcome that at UCI.”

It’s unclear whether Bill and Sue Gross will emulate people like investor Warren Buffett, who this week announced he is giving most of his wealth to the Gates Foundation.

“I’m not in the Gates’ league either from the standpoint of assets or retirement proximity,” Gross said. “However, Gates, Buffett and I all agree that wealth should be distributed, lest it produce a rot in the system or the family.”

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