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Scientific heavyweights join forces for stem cell research

A formal agreement to negotiate to establish a non-profit collaboration for stem cell research was signed March 17 by leaders at UCSD, the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, The Scripps Research Institute and Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

The agreement signed establishes an independent entity to be called the San Diego Consortium for Regenerative Medicine. It was signed by UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox, Scripps Research Institute Chief Operating Officer Douglas Bingham, Salk President Richard Murphy and Burnham President John Reed at a formal ceremony at The Lodge at Torrey Pines.

Referring to the new collaborative effort as stem cells by the sea, UCSD Chancellor Fox credited one man with being the inspiration behind formation of the new scientific consortium.

“I’d like to acknowledge the role John Moores played in bringing this group together,” she said, “in a way that simply would not have happened without his leadership.”

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Fox called Torrey Pines Mesa a hotbed of science and discovery, saying the four institutions will produce lifesaving results in the form of new therapies and cures.

A location has not yet been selected for a headquarters for the consortium. The group is looking at several properties, including on UCSD-owned land. It’s also uncertain whether the headquarters will use an already existing facility or be built from the ground up.

Launching the consortium is just the first step in a multi-phase process of creating the new cooperative scientific entity. There are signficant funding and legal hurdles to be cleared before the work of the consortium can come to fruition.

The pasatesage of Proposition 71 a couple of years ago by California voters freed up $3 billion in state funds to be used in stem cell research. That cleared the way for distribution of $350 million annually in state funding for stem cell research. However, opponents of stem cell research have brought a legal challenge in court to Proposition 71, which could delay or impede scientific research.

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Scientists believe there is great potential for medical breakthroughs in treating diseases from stem cell research. Stem cells are significant because they have the potential to develop into many different cell types. Serving as a sort of repair system for the body, they can divide without limit to replenish other cells as long as the person or animal is still alive. When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential to either remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell, or a brain cell.

Research on stem cells is advancing knowledge about how an organism develops from a single cell and how healthy cells replace damaged cells in adult organisms. This promising area of science is also leading scientists to investigate the possibility of cell-based therapies to treat disease, which is often referred to as regenerative or reparative medicine.

“We’re here today to celebr this historic partnership with our neighbors,” said Burnham Institute’s Reed, “to join forces in pursuit of medical research in the exciting field of stem cell biology. California has always been a pioneer and innovator. In forming this consortium, we in San Diego continue that tradition.”

By pooling their resources, Reed said all four scientific institutions can achieve their one mutual goal: finding cures for diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimers, heart disease and diabetes.

“We do not know that stem cell research will provide the desired cures,” said Reed. “But we do know with absolute certainty that the fastest way to get there is through collaboration.”

Salk President Murphy evoked the spirit of his institute’s founder, who developed a vaccine for polio.

“Twenty years ago, Jonas Salk built the Salk Institute to bring the best scientists to San Diego,” he said, “and give them the freedom to do the research they wanted to do. We knew we would be more successful if we had the opportunity to collaborate with one another.”

Murphy said the consortium will create an immediate critical mass of expertise.

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“It will give us a fast start in this emerging field and will help attract other scientists to San Diego,” he said. “This consortium is going to do research and get results that none of us can even imagine at this point.”