California scientists celebrate Obama’s lifting of restrictions on stem cell research

Published: March 9, 2009  |  Source:

KPCC’s Nick Roman says people and institutions across California welcomed President Obama’s decision to lift restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research.

Nick Roman: Perhaps the most prominent voice in favor of lifting the restrictions belonged to former first lady Nancy Reagan. She watched her husband, President Ronald Reagan, slowly deteriorate from Alzheimer’s disease. Mrs. Reagan said she was “very grateful” that President Obama lifted the restrictions.

Stem cells might produce better treatments for Alzheimer’s. At least, that’s what researchers say. They don’t know for sure. They say they do know that restraints President Bush placed on federal funding slowed progress on stem cell research to a crawl.

Hans Keirstead is co-director of UC Irvine’s Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center. He says that under the Bush restrictions, you saw…

Hans Keirstead: A dearth of laboratories around the nation, mature researchers not getting into the stem cell field, young researchers fearing for their job stability and not getting into the stem cell field. And it’s also resulted in a lack of confidence in the investment community, where a lot of research is actually done, in small biotechs.

Roman: Now, says Keirstead, the door is open to more research and greater progress in the stem cell field. The University of California figures to be in the middle of all that. Every UC campus, including the new one in Merced, has a research center that specializes in stem cell science. Arnold Kriegstein, who heads stem cell research at UC San Francisco, says California already leads the field in this country.

Arnold Kriegstein: We’ve had training programs in place for over three years now. We have students and fellows and post-docs and junior faculty who’ve been trained specifically in embryonic stem cell research. There are training facilities. We have, in fact, laboratories specially equipped for human embryonic stem cell work. And so that we are just perfectly positioned to take advantage of both federal and state dollars, now, to really move these projects forward.

Roman: California voters are one reason the UC is well positioned to take advantage of President Obama’s order. Three years after President Bush restricted stem cell research, voters in this state pushed to expand it by voting for Proposition 71 by a 60-40 margin. The measure, championed by Governor Schwarzenegger, created the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

So far, the institute has provided nearly $700 million for stem-cell research. The UC stem cell research centers have pursued their own grant money, as their names reveal. The UCLA center is named for homebuilder and philanthropist Eli Broad and his wife. UCI’s center carries the name of bond investor Bill Gross and his wife.

Hans Keirstead at UCI is conducting the first federally approved study of a stem cell therapy in humans. His work has already helped paralyzed lab rats walk again. Keirstead says he’s now trying to determine how stem cells can help other spinal cord injuries.

Keirstead: It’s a different spinal cord cell type, a cell type that is lost in spinal muscular atrophy. It’s also lost in Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS. And it’s also lost in chronic spinal cord injury. So we’re working in the pre-clinical phases now to ensure that the product works and is safe.

Roman: But Keirstead is doing more than just working on research. He’s working the phones, too. Since Friday, when news surfaced that the president was going to lift stem cell research restrictions, Keirstead says his phone has been ringing off the hook. He’s getting calls from people with spinal cord injuries who wonder how soon he might come up with a breakthrough.