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Stem Cell Institute Awards 1st Grants

Roughly $12.1million from private sources will jump-start research as the organization's ability to issue bonds is determined in court.

April 11, 2006|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — After 16 months of litigation-induced delay and uncertainty, California's $3-billion voter-approved stem cell institute has cut its first checks to research institutions across the state, officials announced Monday.

On its face, the news could seem anticlimactic: About $12.1 million in training grants awarded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine's oversight board last fall have at last been funded.

But the money flowed only after a frenzied effort by Robert Klein -- the institute's board chairman and main proponent of the 2004 ballot initiative that created the novel experiment -- to woo commitments from foundations and trusts that might not be repaid.

"We are now officially a grant-making entity," Klein said Monday at the stem cell institute's headquarters in San Francisco, flanked by research scientists, patient advocates and patients who held canes or sat in wheelchairs.

California voters approved the publicly funded institute in November 2004 as a response to federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, dedicating $3 billion to the nascent science over the course of a decade.

But litigation by taxpayer groups and religious organizations opposed to the use of discarded embryos in some of the research has paralyzed the issuance of state bonds meant to fund the venture.

Instead, the state for the first time in its history last week issued so-called bond anticipation notes, purchased by six philanthropic entities to help the institute fulfill its mission while litigation is pending.

If the institute prevails, the note purchasers will be repaid from general obligation bonds the state will issue.

A decision is expected soon from the Alameda County Superior Court judge who tried the consolidated cases earlier this year. Legal analysts have predicted that the initiative will survive the challenge. But opponents have vowed to appeal to the state Supreme Court, tying up funding until at least spring 2007.

The roughly $12.1 million in checks cut by the state last week will finance pre-doctoral, post-doctoral and clinical fellowships and training courses at 16 institutions, grooming a new crop of scientists in the field of umbilical cord blood, embryonic and adult stem cell research.

Raising the money to fund the grants was "urgent," Klein said, because many recipient institutions had already crafted stem cell training programs and recruited scientists in anticipation of the grants.

Officials with the UCLA Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine and USC's Keck School of Medicine -- among the recipients -- applauded the timing of the funds. In a statement, Keck Dean Brian E. Henderson called it "so important ... as our newly recruited stem cell program director arrives to begin building a comprehensive and interdisciplinary center for stem cell and regenerative medicine."

Klein has already secured an additional $32 million in commitments for more bond anticipation notes, which will likely be issued in increments over the coming months for research grants.

John Simpson of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which has pressed for transparency in the grant-making process, said "everybody's glad that they're doing some funding." But he called on the institute to release the names of 10 institutions who were denied grants, to ensure that not only applicants with representation on the oversight board are receiving funding.

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