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Stem cell pioneer to lead institute

Australian biologist Alan Trounson will aid California's $3-billion effort to find cures for diseases through human embryonic research.

September 15, 2007|Mary Engel | Times Staff Writer

A pioneering Australian biologist who was among the first scientists to grow human embryonic stem cells in a laboratory will lead California's $3-billion effort to translate such research into cures for diseases.

The unexpected announcement that Alan Trounson, 61, director of the Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories in Melbourne and a founder of the Australian Stem Cell Centre, would be the new president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine came during a teleconferenced meeting of the institute's oversight board Friday.

Robert Klein II, board chairman and driving force behind Proposition 71, which authorized creation of the institute, praised Trounson for his deep roots in the field, his experience in taking discoveries from the laboratory to the clinic and his "global vision."

Trounson "believes this is the epicenter of stem cell research worldwide, and he wants to lead the effort," Klein said.

Trounson will be paid $490,000, or if the state approves paying his moving expenses, $475,000, Klein said. Under the terms of his contract, he can work part time at a prorated salary for up to six months as he closes down his laboratory.

Trounson wants to start his new job as soon as he works out visa requirements, he said.

"This is a life-marker for my career," he said Friday by video hookup from Melbourne. "I just want to get on with the job."

Trounson's appointment comes just as the almost 3-year-old institute is set to shift into warp speed with an infusion of money and talent. Until now, it was running on borrowed money and a skeletal staff.

The state treasurer's office has set a Sept. 27 date for the sale of $250 million in general obligation bonds, the first installment of the billions of dollars for research approved by voters in 2004. The sale had been blocked by a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Proposition 71, officially known as the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act, but in May, the California Supreme Court gave a final clearance to the research effort, declining to hear an appeal of two lower court rulings. That action cleared the way for the first bond sale.

Klein, chairman of the institute's oversight committee, wrote Proposition 71 in response to President Bush's August 2001 mandate that restricted federal funding to only a handful of human embryonic stem cell lines created before then, which happen to include those grown by Trounson's team. The restrictions were prompted by moral concerns about destruction of embryos during such research.

Embryonic stem cells are among the first cells to form after an egg is fertilized and exist for just a few days before giving rise to specialized cells. Their ability to become any type of tissue in the body is what gives them potential as a means to study human disease in a petri dish or for use as "replacement" cells for damaged ones.

Trounson is a pioneer of in vitro fertilization and was the first scientist to figure out how to freeze excess embryos for future pregnancy attempts. He's also a sheep farmer who has cloned cows and wombats.

In 1998, he was part of a team of scientists from Singapore and Australia racing to be the first to remove stem cells from days-old human embryos and grow them in a lab. Although they succeeded at producing two human cell lines, University of Wisconsin biologist James Thomson got there first, publishing his findings that November as Trounson's team was writing theirs.

Thomson recently announced an affiliation with UC Santa Barbara, saying that he would spend one month at a research laboratory there. Martin Pera, who worked with Trounson in the stem-cell race in Australia, was hired to direct stem cell research at USC in 2005.

Pera also worked with Trounson to derive pure nerve cells from unspecialized stem cells, lending hope to the notion that the research could lead to treatments for Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries and other nerve disorders.

They are among dozens of scientists who have been drawn to California since the passage of Proposition 71.

"This is an excellent move," said John Simpson of the Foundation for Taxpayer Rights, a watchdog group that can be one of the institute's toughest critics. "I am wonderfully impressed and completely surprised."

Dr. George Q. Daley, co-director of the Harvard stem cell institute and president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, called Trounson a "terrific, inspired choice" and said the willingness of an internationally recognized scientist to give up his laboratory to lead the California institute was a testament to the resources the state has committed to the project.

"This position is going to be the single most important steward of stem cell research internationally," Daley said. "We're all envious of California."

The institute had been without a president since the April resignation of neuroscientist Zach W. Hall, who left two months earlier than his announced retirement date.

Trounson's career has not been free of controversy. He was criticized in 2002 after showing Australian legislators -- who were voting to legalize embryonic stem cell research -- a video of a rat that he said had been cured of paralysis using embryonic stem cells. It turned out that the rat had been given slightly older cells called foetal germ cells.

Trounson said Friday that he had apologized to the parliament and learned "a very valuable lesson about ensuring precision in what you say to people."

Trounson released a "vision statement" Friday, which outlined his relationship with the institute's board. Calling Klein "a visionary financier and designer of innovative systems," Trounson said that the two would work as partners to "deliver the incredible opportunity of stem cell therapies."

--

mary.engel@latimes.com

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