Stem cell researchers move ahead after blow

By Will Carless

Heads are hanging low in universities, research institutes and in City Hall this week as San Diego’s scientific community comes to terms with the fact that it will not house the headquarters of the new California stem cell institute.

Despite a valiant effort by business leaders to attract the institute, the Independent Citizen’s Oversight Committee, a panel of experts charged with overseeing the creation and administration of the new body, voted May 6 to set up house in San Francisco.

The vote marked the end of a long and hard-fought campaign that was initially contested by 10 California cities. Of the original respondents to the institute’s request for proposals, four made it into the final rounds of assessment and by May 6 only three remained: San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento.

The final vote was a nail-biter. In the first round, 13 of the 27 committee members present voted for San Francisco, 11 for San Diego and three for Sacramento. The three Sacramento votes were then re-cast and all three went San Francisco’s way.

While the headquarters will only comprise an administration building and are unlikely to employ more than 50 people, their attraction is seen as a massive coup for San Francisco.

Politicians and business leaders there expect the institute to act as a magnet for leading stem cell researchers, and insiders tacitly admit that having the institute in one’s back yard can only help nearby institutes and universities secure research funding.

“This administration is very much focused on growing the biotech industry in San Francisco. ...” said Jesse Blout, head of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Office of Economic Development and one of the key orchestrators of San Francisco’s proposal. “So, the idea of having this nerve center of stem cell activity in the form of the institute in the city is a big deal for us.”

Representatives of the Red Team - a conglomerate of business leaders and lobbyists who put together La jolla’s bid - said the loss was undoubtedly a setback for the city.

“We are disappointed,” said Jane Signaigo-Cox, senior vice president of Economic Development at the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., “because I think we definitely clarified for the committee that San Diego is where the science is and would be an ideal setting for what they are trying to do.”

Joe Panetta, president and CEO of Biocom, a trade group representing San Diego’s biotech industry, and one of the leading lights of San Diego’s bid, was more muted in his response to the decision.

“The decision has been made,” said Panetta. “It has been made fairly, and we are happy that we were considered for the top two. We gave it our all, and showed that San Diego’s life science community is the most collaborative life science community in the world. We look forward to working with the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to develop life-saving new therapies in the future.”

The Red Team had previously challenged the grades given to San Diego in criteria used to assess the viability of the sites. Key to their complaint was a grade given for the number of medical personnel in proximity to the headquarters location, and the number of leading universities, research hospitals and private research institutions within 45 minutes of the headquarters.

Although San Diego’s grade for this part of the assessment was raised slightly after written challenges were made, Signaigo-Cox said she considered the low grade an unfair snub.

“We still feel a little disheartened about that part,” she said. “We still feel that we at least deserved more points as far as how close our qualified professionals and bio-medical community was vs. San Francisco.”

However, Signaigo-Cox said that overall, she and her colleagues considered the final assessment to have been fair and well-balanced and stressed that the community could nevertheless take something valuable away from the experience.

“The collaboration that took place among a variety of entities, organizations and people was phenomenal,” she said. "(It was) an effort that I think we can use going forward for other things that are relevant to other bio-science-oriented projects.”

Asked if not having the institute in La Jolla would cramp the community’s style in terms of recruiting top researchers and receiving grants from the institute, John Reed, president and CEO of La Jolla’s Burnham Institute, had his doubts.

“I don’t think the absence of the center in San Diego is going to be a major impediment to San Diego’s competitiveness for Proposition 71 funding,” said Reed, referring to the proposition that created the institute and some $3 billion in available funds for stem cell research.

“My reason for wanting the (California Institute for Regenerative Medicine) to be headquartered in San Diego,” continued Reed, “was more as what we could do for the CIRM than what the CIRM could do for us.”