A STEM CELL UTOPIA
Above the wails of disbelief and the cheers of victory that surrounded last year’s election results, an acute observer might have heard the faint sound of champagne corks popping high in the hills of La Jolla.
For a select group of scientists, academics and business leaders, the election was remarkable for a little-read but widely debated proposition that essentially made their pockets a lot deeper and their futures a lot brighter. Proposition 71, which passed by 59 percent, cleared the way for $3 billion to be made available by the state government with the specific aim of funding research into one of the most promising – and controversial – fields of scientific research of the 21st century.
Stem cell research, which in its many manifestations has long been a key component of the work of several of La Jolla’s premier institutions, got the green light from California’s voters.
In simple terms, stem cells are undifferentiated cells that have the unique ability to transform into any kind of cell in the body. Scientists hope that the study of stem cells will eventually lead to new methods of combating disease, but there has been much debate overthe ethics of studying, manipulating and even cloning cells. Federal funding has been limited for stem cell research and scientists have faced a political climate that has been less than favorable towards their work.
The passing of Proposition 71 therefore gives the community lots of reasons to celebrate.
Asked if he stayed up late watching the fate of Proposition 71 unfold, Mark Mercola, a specialist on cardiomyocytes at the Burnham Institute, smiled.
“I think that’s fair to say,” he said. “We were all looking forward to it with a great spirit of anticipation.”
While La Jolla’s most influential research institutions have been holding their own with world leaders in stem cell research for a long time, the passing of Proposition 71 arguably offers establishments like the Burnham Institute, the Salk Institute and UCSD the opportunity to cement themselves as the preeminent institutions for stem cell research in the United States. With the vast increase in available funding for researchers and the shift towards a political climate that liberalizes federal rules on stem cell research that many scientists claim stifled their ingenuity, scientists say California is now a more attractive place than ever for the best and the brightest stem cell experts to congregate.
La Jolla’s biotech companies, politicians and business groups are also striving to lock down La Jolla’s reputation as a center for excellence in stem cells. They seek the money and prestige that comes with being one of the major players in a school of scientific thought that many biologists say is potentially the most significant new frontier in the fight against disease.
Local researchers currently working on stem cells are likely to benefit enormously from the passing of Proposition 71. For some scientists, such as Yang Xu, a specialist in stem cell research at UCSD, the legislation means the research he has been doing into mouse stem cells can now likely be translated into human stem cells. For all of La Jolla’s stem cell researchers, the sheer amount of money that will be made available will be a great boon to their work, making available the funds that are the life-blood of their profession.
“In general political terms,” said Xu, “the political environment was not very favorable, at least on the federal level, and the funding was very limited … (Proposition 71) certainly raised a lot of interest because, for researchers, funding is critical. Without funding, you can’t really move along.”
How that money is distributed, and from where, is another field of debate entireProposition 71 called for the creation of a California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which would be charged with allocating some $300 million annually in research funds to stem cell researchers all over California. The legislation also created an Independent Citizens Oversight Committee, consisting of 29 appointed officials. This body has the job of chaperoning the institute on everything from ethical considerations to the granting of research money.
La Jolla is in the thick of things as these bodies are phased in. Five San Diegans have been named to the oversight committee, four of whom are representatives of La Jolla establishments. Also, San Diego – and, more specifically, La Jolla – is vying to become the headquarters for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
La Jollans on the Independent Citizen’s Oversight Committee include the chief executive officer of the Burnham Institute, two representatives from UCSD and the president of the Salk Institute. The abundance of local scientists on the committee offers the community a fair say in proceedings and an appropriate voice in the ear of the policies of the new institute as it establishes itself.
However, La Jolla’s stem cell researchers should not expect any favoritism from the body as a result. Committee members must remain neutral on any issues that pit San Diego’s scientific community against that of its closest competitors such as the Bay Area or Los Angeles. Therefore, La Jolla’s scientists should not expect preferential treatment from their friends and colleagues on the committee.
Committee representatives shrugged off any notion that their future decisions will be based on anything other than purely objective assessment.
“(The political safeguards against bias) are a day at the beach compared to academic politics,” said Evan Snyder, professor and director of the Stem Cells and Regeneration program at the Burnham Institute. “Academic politics is a bloodsport. The checks and balances in that ICOC are astounding. You’re not going to have a Northern California institute let any kind of Southern California Institute get away with anything. You’re not going to have a UC institution let a nonprofit institution get away with anything.”
What appears more likely to sway the economic tide La Jolla’s way is if San Diego can seduce the committee into placing the new institute here. While the institute would not likely have a very profound economic impact on the area in and of itself – the organization would provide a relatively modest 50 or so jobs – business leaders, politicians and academics are well aware of the prestige La Jolla would earn if it is built on the Torrey Pines Mesa and the consequent investments it might bring to the area.
“It’s nice to have in your community for bragging rights,” said John Reed, president of the Burnham Institute. “If you are, as we are, a scientific powerhouse that’s really trying to bill itself as one of the top places in the world for stem cell research, having the headquarters here is nice bragging rights.”
Xu, the researcher from UCSD, agreed. He said that having the institute here could be a valuable carrot for the community to dangle for scientists looking to relocate.
“Certainly it will raise the status of the region,” said Xu, “so that people will immediately think about the place when stem cells are mentioned.”
San Diego’s bid to host the institute is being spearheaded by the San Diego Economic Development Council and Biocom, a prominent regional biotech business group. The proposal put together by the collaboration of business interests was recently endorsed by the city of San Diego. A City Manager’s report released March 14 praised the efforts of the group and echoed the view that attracting the institute to the region would do wonders for La Jolla’s reputation as a leader in life sciences.
“It is quite possible that attracting CIRM to the city will spawn significant additional capital investment into the region for stem cell research and development activities,” says the report, “and create hundreds of quality job opportunities.”
Details of the city’s proposal for wooing the independent citizen’s oversight committee are closely guarded due to the competitive nature of the bidding process, but the manager’s report suggested strongly that the proposal names a site on the Torrey Pines Mesa, in proximity to the Salk Institute, Burnham Institute and UCSD, as the ideal site for the institute.
Aside from the prestige of hosting the institute, some of La Jolla’s leading stem cell researchers admitted that having the institute a short walk away will certainly not hurt.
“I don’t think you can completely ignore the possibility that having some of the administrators of Prop. 71 fund running around the restaurants here and over a glass of wine running into the scientists. …” said Mercola. “Yes, there might be an influence, but I wouldn’t think much.”
Regardless of whether the new institute does lay its foundation in La Jolla, the community already has an impressive array of achievements to its name when it comes to stem cell research. La Jolla’s research bodies and UCSD have been attracting some of the top thinkers in this field for the last two decades, and the area is on the tip of most scientists’ tongues whenever stem cell research is mentioned.
“The quality of biomedical and life sciences research in La Jolla and in San Diego is superb by anyone’s standards,” said Richard Murphy, president of the Salk Institute. “Along with Boston and San Francisco, San Diego is recognized as a world center for life sciences research.”
La Jolla has already succesfully attracted such prominent scientists as Evan Snyder, who was among the first scientists to use the term “stem cell.” The community has such a wide variety of stem cell-related research programs already in place, that the benefits of Proposition 71 are the icing on what is already a grand and illustrious cake.
Mercola said that, statewide, the passing of Proposition 71 is a plus for researchers deciding where to set up camp. He said that California’s liberal approach to stem cell research was one of the reasons he moved to La Jolla from Harvard University three years ago.
“Prop. 71 would be a strong motivation to move to California,” he said. “It’s a great recruiting tool for this region and that might be one of its major lasting benefits.”
Another such benefit of Proposition 71 is its galvanizing factor. La Jolla’s institutions have been given a hefty spark with which to light the fires of collaboration under their scientists, and the results of this are already being seen. As the business community pulls together to tout La Jolla as the destination of choice for brilliant stem cell scientists, the academic community is doing its bit to ensure La Jolla has a coordinated and focused plan of attack for future research needs.
“The four major institutes on the La Jolla Mesa,” said Snyder, referring to the Burnham Institute, the Salk Institute, UCSD and the Scripps Research Institute, “have been in negotiations now for probably three months since the passage of the legislation … figuring out how we can begin to cooperate, form consortia, pool our resources, pool our knowledge, pool our skills, in order to create something we’re going to be calling the La Jolla Stem Cell Initiative.”
While still in its very early stages, this initiative is just one example of how the community’s institutions can work together to make the best use of the available funds.
“What’s happening now are people that have incredible knowledge bases and incredible skills but have never thought of themselves as being stem cell biologists, are now being invited to look at stem cells afresh,” said Snyder, “with a new eye, with new techniques, so we’re all learning.”
Snyder’s comments were echoed by Edward Holmes, vice chancellor of Human Health Sciences at UCSD and one of the university’s representatives on the independent citizen’s oversight committee. He said the collaboration that is being born in La Jolla is indicative of a wider-ranging ethos of teamwork that has emerged between institutions all over California as a result of the passing of Proposition 71.
“The synergy of doing things together will be a powerful one,” said Holmes. “I think this is a great opportunity to make one plus one equal a whole lot more than two.”
The proposition will eventually cost state taxpayers up to $6 billion. Therefore, communities like La Jolla will likely be watched very carefully by politicians and citizens groups around the country, who will likely want to see a tangible bang for their buck.
Debate is currently raging about who might benefit from any breakthrough that results from work funded by the legislation. Nobody really knows what form such a breakthrough might take, and there is no guarantee that the massive investment will pay off for everyone who voted for it. But for La Jolla, this is a good time to be in the stem cell business, and the scientists on Torrey Pines Mesa intend to use their new-found wealth to continue their groundbreaking work.ly.
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