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Apr 15, 2005 (Vol. 25, No. 8)

California Stem Cell Institute Starts Slowly

Pending Lawsuits Litter the Road Ahead

  • With the passage of Proposition 71 (the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative) last November, California voters gave their approval for the state to spend $3 billion on stem cell research to find treatments for Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer's, and more.

    The new agency, called the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, will administer the funds over 10 years. Proposition 71 calls for the president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to serve a six-year term, and headhunters are busy recruiting and screening candidates.

    Meanwhile, the Independent Citizens' Oversight Committee (ICOC), the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, was eager to start building the program. Neuroscientist Zach Hall, Ph.D., was recently asked to direct the new institute for one year as interim president.

    "This is an extraordinary project," says Dr. Hall. "It involves new scientific and medical frontiers, and is important politically, socially, and economically." Should a long-term president be hired before Dr. Hall's one-year contract ends, "I will act as a scientific advisor," he says.

    Dr. Hall comes with a proven track record in administrative duties. Nobel laureate David Baltimore, Ph.D., an ICOC member, says that Dr. Hall "has a remarkable set of credentials."

    Before joining the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Dr. Hall was associate dean of medical research at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

    From 1994 to 1997, he was the director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the NIH. At the University of California, San Francisco, Dr. Hall served as executive vice chancellor and headed the neurobiology department.

    "We're very fortunate to have someone with Dr. Hall's extensive scientific background and proven leadership serving as interim president," says Robert Klein, chairman of the ICOC. "Zach has ideal credentials, including vast and varied experience in basic research and running major organizations," says Fred Gage, Ph.D., a professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla.

  • Seeking a Home Town

    Now temporarily housed in Emeryville, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine closed bidding in mid-March for proposals sent by cities that are vying to house the permanent administrative offices. Eleven cities, including San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Sacramento, sent proposals with incentives to lure the new institute.

    Some cities are offering free rent for office and staff living space, free computers, and even free concierge services. It's expected that about 50 people will be needed to staff the administrative offices, which will process research grants, allocate funds at an average of $300 million yearly, and hold biomedical conferences. The temporary offices employ 11 people, including Dr. Hall.

    There's no indication what cities are front runners. "It's a great honor for us to have these proposals presented," says Klein. The winning city will be announced in early May. Civic leaders want their city to become the permanent location because it will make them an international hub of stem cell research.

    Stem cell researchers from around the world will bring their ideas to the location. Moreover, cities think that new biotechnology companies will cluster around the institute. New companies will bring more jobs and more payroll taxes.

  • Training Grants First

    The headquarters of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine will not perform any stem cell research. In fact, "we never plan to have our own laboratories," says Dr. Hall, "but we will fund scientists to carry out research in their own labs."

    However, before any money goes to buy culture media or test tubes, Dr. Hall believes that more people need to be trained to do stem cell research. "This project requires a real expansion of the workforce, and we want to make sure that we have enough people entering the field to support its needs," he says.

    Consequently, he will propose to the ICOC that the first grants go to train undergraduate and graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in stem cell science. "We will encourage people to design and teach courses in stem cell research, and require courses on the ethical, legal, and social implications of stem cell research," he says.

    "Once we have different grant programs in place, we'll make announcements that we're seeking grant applications in particular areas of stem cell research," says Dr. Hall. Some universities in California have their own established stem cell programs, such as the Stem Cell Institute at Stanford University and the newly launched Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at the University of California-Los Angeles.

    Researchers at academic institutions, as well scientists at biotechnology companies, will be eligible to compete for grants from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

    "This initiative will fund an enormous amount of stem cell research and make California preeminent in this area," says Dr. Hall. The research efforts will generate new ideas and technologies that lead to new businesses. "Companies will want to locate near the academic institutions carrying out related research," he adds.

    Although six of ten California voters approved Proposition 71, it does not guarantee a smooth ride. There already are lawsuits pending that may delay the sale of tax-free state bonds to raise the $3 billion.

    For example, Ted Costa, who started the movement to oust former Governor Gray Davis, claims that the 29-member ICOC is too independent and stacked with scientists promoting special interests. Costa wants all meetings to be open to the public to prevent conflicts of interest.

    Proposition 71 calls for the ICOC to be free of politics and guided by the research community. Requiring public meetings would rob scientists of confidentiality. "People will not criticize their colleagues at an open meeting," says Dr. Hall. In addition, scientists do not want to disclose their best ideas. "If their ideas are made public, all their rivals will know what they're planning to do," Dr. Hall adds.

  • Brain Exodus

    "There's little doubt that California will become a major center worldwide for stem cell research," says Dr. Hall. He's heard anecdotally that undergraduate and graduate students, who want to study stem cell research, are applying only to California schools.

    Proposition 71 has also raised concerns that stem cell researchers in other states will be drawn to California by the promise of substantial funds. In fact, one of the goals of Proposition 71 is to "recruit the highest scientific and medical talent in the United States."

    "That proposition is aimed at us," says Michael Sussman, Ph.D., director of the University of Wisconsin Biotechnology Center in Madison. He sees Proposition 71 as a wake-up call for Wisconsin and other states to develop programs to attract and keep talented scientists.

    Wisconsin has a rich history in stem cell research, ever since James Thomson, Ph.D., led a team in 1998 that first isolated and grew human embryonic stem cells. Another University of Wisconsin scientist, Su-Chun Zhang, recently achieved the difficult task of coaxing stem cells to develop into motor neurons.

    About 30 groups at the University of Wisconsin carry out diverse studies using stem cells. Although they are not backed by $3 billion, University of Wisconsin researchers have their own angel.

    The actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, has made several grants amounting to $2 to $3 million through the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which he established to find a cure for Parkinson's disease. Fox also visits the Wisconsin laboratories, which he describes as "amazing facilities."

    A few weeks after Proposition 71 passed in California, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle proposed a plan to fund a new $750 million research facility, called the Institute for Discovery, that would unite biologists, engineers, computer scientists, and others to fuel interdisciplinary research into stem cells, nanotechnology, and other areas.

    "Wisconsin is well known for creating discoveries in stem cells and other research, and we'll continue doing that," says Dr. Sussman, who recently turned down a job offer from a California university.

    Companies and other universities have also tried to recruit Dr. Thomson, but he stays in Wisconsin. Researchers are recruited continually in academia, "but money is only one part of going or coming," Dr. Sussman says.



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