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Stem Cell Programs Forge Ahead

Universities hire scientists and build labs even though Prop. 71 funds are tied up in court. Officials say they can't afford to wait.

January 03, 2006|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

California's leading research universities are spending millions of dollars hiring scientists and building lab space for human embryonic stem cell research, even as money from the state's massive bond measure remains tied up in court.

USC has lured a top scientist from the Australian Stem Cell Centre to head its new research institute and has committed $10 million this year to hiring faculty and renovating lab space.

UCLA has said it will spend at least $20 million over five years to recruit scientists and set up laboratories. It has already hired three young researchers for faculty positions, two from Harvard University and the other from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Stanford University has made several prominent hires, including two in May from Harvard and the University of Michigan. UC Irvine has begun planning a $60-million facility to house its program, and on Friday hired Peter Donovan, a prominent Johns Hopkins University professor, as an interim co-director.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 04, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Stem cell research -- An article in Tuesday's California section about universities hiring scientists and building lab space for stem cell research said UCLA had hired two researchers from Harvard University and one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. UCLA has hired one researcher from Harvard, one from MIT and one from UC San Francisco.

"We are ... not waiting," said Arnold Kriegstein, director of UC San Francisco's stem cell institute, which has also hired faculty and started preparing research facilities. "We are moving ahead with what we can with private funding."

They are taking a calculated risk that Proposition 71, the $3-billion stem cell initiative, will pass legal muster. Two lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the bond measure are set to go to trial in late February before an Alameda County Superior Court judge.

When the measure passed in November 2004, supporters hailed California as a potential world leader in stem cell research.

Proposition 71 specifically funds therapeutic cloning, in which an individual's DNA is inserted into an unfertilized egg, producing stem cells that are a genetic match with the donor. Scientists believe such cloned stem cells could allow researchers to understand why certain diseases occur and also produce treatments that would not be rejected by the human immune system.

Such research is controversial because it results in the destruction of embryos. The Bush administration has barred any federal funding for research on new human embryonic stem cell lines.

But more than a year has passed since Proposition 71 was approved by California voters, and no money has been dispensed for research because of the lawsuits. The suits argue in part that the initiative illegally allows state money to be controlled by a committee that is not under the direct management of elected officials.

Although the state's oversight committee approved about $12.5 million in grants in September to train scientists in stem cell research, officials have no actual money to hand out.

But they are working to overcome that by asking philanthropic groups to lend the state about $50 million that could be distributed to researchers while the bond money is tied up, said Bob Klein, who heads the state oversight committee.

Under the plan, donors would buy bond anticipation notes from the state and would be repaid if Proposition 71 is upheld. But if the proposition is defeated in court, the loans would turn into a gift, Klein said.

Some scientists and supporters of the initiative have become concerned that the legal delays are standing in the way of the state's pioneering aspirations.

Those worries increased last month, when New Jersey became the first state in the nation to allocate funds for human embryonic stem cell research.

In November, two government cancer researchers who were heavily recruited by Stanford decided to work in Singapore, saying that they were concerned about the uncertainty in Proposition 71 funding.

At UC San Francisco, some researchers who had been eager to compete for grants for embryonic stem cell research have had to look for other sources of funding or areas of emphasis. Programs to train scientists in developing and maintaining human embryonic stem cells have stalled.

"We came blasting out of the gate with 60% of the voters of California behind us, and now we're just treading water," said Jeff Sheehy, a member of the committee overseeing the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, the new state agency that is charged with dispensing the funds.

At the same time, news that a South Korean researcher faked results in cloning experiments, initially heralded as a major step forward for stem cell research, has given California scientists new hope that they might take the lead.

"It was a terrible thing to happen, but it still means someone needs to figure it out, and it could be us, which would be great for California," Sheehy said.

Some officials at California's major universities say they cannot afford to delay.

"It is a gamble in a sense, certainly in the short term," said Dr. Brian Henderson, dean of the Keck School of Medicine at USC. "But we have got to be in a position to do the work" if the funds become available.

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