La Jolla makes waves in stem cell research

Just weeks before President Bush vetoed legislation for the second time that would have provided federal funding for research involving human embryonic stem cells, a California court decision ensured that such research would get underway like never before.

The California Supreme Court decided in May not to hear an appeal in a lawsuit brought by opponents of Proposition 71, a $3 billion bond measure to fund embryonic stem cell research approved by California voters in 2004. The decision means that the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine - the state stem cell agency formed by the ballot measure and charged with distributing the funds - now has a green light to distribute the $3 billion as it sees fit.

Federal funding is only available for adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are considered much more promising because of their ability to divide and self-renew for long periods of time and to develop into every different cell type in the human body, but can only be obtained from human embryos.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has actually been issuing grants for months, funded both by private donors and a $150 million loan from the state's general fund issued by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in anticipation of the lawsuit being dropped. Research institutions in La Jolla, who were among the state leaders in winning these early grants, think they will win more now that the full funding of the bond measure is available.

The state agency issued $50 million in facilities grants for lab space and training on June 5, and all four of the major stem cell research institutions on Torrey Pines Mesa were among the beneficiaries. The Burnham Institute for Medical Research received $3.8 million, UCSD received $2.8 million, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies received $2.3 million and the Scripps Research Institute received $1.7 million.

The four institutions, which have joined forces in an alliance known as the San Diego Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, had already enjoyed success in earlier rounds of grant funding from the state agency. The four institutions had received a total of 29 research grants totaling more than $37 million as of March. With the lawsuits out of the way, the state agency plans to dole out hundreds of millions more dollars by the end of the year, and the San Diego consortium is poised to take full advantage.

The irony is that part of the inspiration for forming the consortium came from the tight budget climate created by the lawsuits against Proposition 71 and the Bush administration's refusal to fund research that involves the destruction of human embryos.

"When money is tight, it doesn't make sense to buy four of the same piece of equipment if you can just buy one and share it," said Nancy Beddingfield, spokeswoman for the Burnham Institute.

Now that money is no longer tight, stem cell researchers are talking about the possibility of building a new facility on Torrey Pines Mesa that the four members of the consortium would share. The California Institute of Regenerative Medicine plans to dole out up to $222 million in funding for major facilities by the end of the year.

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