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.

“If this thing takes off the way it’s intended, there would be a new institute up on the Mesa that bands together all four of these institutions,” Beddingfield said.

Karl Willert, director of UCSD’s core stem cell facility, said optimism about such a facility reaches the highest levels of the University.

“I know that higher up at the president and chancellor level, there’s talk about this new building,” he said.

But the CIRM funds will provide more than new facilities. The agency also plans to give out $85 million in grants for new faculty, principally younger researchers, post-doctorate students and doctors, by the end of the year, according to agency spokesman Dale Carlson.

In addition to the new faculty directly funded by the agency, the promise of research grants will lure established researchers from other parts of the country to La Jolla and elsewhere in California.

“I think in the earlier days, people maybe turned away from doing these types of experiments because the funding options were so limited,” Willert said. “Now there are people who are able to continue their research, and I think there will be people leaving certain parts of the country to come here to do their research.”

The cultivation of new faculty has already begun at Burnham, which in January launched a first-of-its-kind training program for young graduate and post-doctorate students who are interested in stem cell research.

Even before the bulk of Proposition 71 funds start flowing, major findings are already being made on Torrey Pines Mesa. A recently announced study at Burnham found that mice with a genetic disease modeled after human diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s saw delays in symptoms and preservation of motor function and well-being after being implanted with embryonic stem cells.

But even the unprecedented levels of funding for embryonic stem cell research in California will not be enough to realize the full potential of the science, said Robert Klein, chair of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Klein decried Bush’s decision to once again veto legislation that would provide federal funding for the research.

“The President has again dashed the hopes of millions of Americans suffering from chronic diseases and conditions, despite the overwhelming support for stem cell research in this country,” Klein said in a statement. “If we’re going to realize the potential of stem cells to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cancer and 70 other debilitating conditions, we need scientists in every state carrying on this research. California cannot reach the potential of this medical research alone.”

Until the White House’s position on the research changes or voters in other states choose to fund the research with public money, California will be acting alone in the United States. Researchers in other countries with less restrictive laws are also conducting crucial research, most notably Japan, Korea and England , but even they are not privy to the types of funds that are now available in California.

“This absolutely will be a sort of mecca for a lot of this science,” Willert said.