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Stem cell research center still on track

It might take longer than December 2010, but financial challenges posed by the deepening recession will not deter a San Diego consortium’s plans to build a $115 million collaborative stem cell research center on Torrey Pines Mesa.

“There’s no question the economy is impeding our progress,” said Louie Coffman, vice president of the Sanford Consortium For Regenerative Medicine, which was formed in March 2006 by Scripps Research Institute, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Burnham Institute for Medical Research and UCSD. “But it has not stopped it.”

The passage of Proposition 71 in November 2004 by California voters enabled $3 billion in state bond funds to be issued for stem cell research. Consortium organizers say they anticipate the four-story research facility planned across the street from UCSD will be paid for by a combination of private donations, state stem cell grants and a bank loan.

Harnessing cells

Larry Goldstein, director of UCSD’s stem cell research program which involves dozens of labs and more than 100 researchers, said this is a watershed time for stem cell science. “There has been a great deal of progress at our institution and others finding ways to harness these cells,” he said.
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Goldstein’s lab is investigating using stem cells to treat Alzheimer’s disease. He’s optimistic it ultimately will prove fruitful.

“If nobody tries, we get no cure,” he pointed out. “If a lot of us work on it - we’ve got a much better chance.”

Stem cells are not magic, noted Goldstein, but are sound science with potential practical application.

“It’s giving us the ability to grow large quantities of them and then induce them to form the different tissue types in adult humans,” he said. “It gives us a source we hope of someday replacing cells and tissues lost and damaged in disease. It will enable us to understand the mechanism of disease and find new drugs.”

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Stumbling blocks

As researchers like Goldstein pursue the science, progress on the San Diego research center is faces a stumbling block brought on California’s huge deficit and fiscal crisis.

Coffman said banks are balking at accepting state funding from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM, formed after Prop. 71 passed to administer the funding for stem cell research at California universities and research institutions.

“They (banks) want assurance CIRM will be able to issue their bonds and put their money in,” Coffman said. “We’d like to provide assurance to our lenders we’re talking to a number of people who will issue letters saying they will pay the amount they’re obligated to pay under the grant award when it is due.”

Stem cell research is too important not to succeed in providing the financial fertilizer to make it happen, said Coffman.

“We’ve had a lot of hurdles in this project,” he added, “but the financial issues will be resolved and we’ll get over this.”