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Regional Stem Cell Labs Urged

Times Staff Writer

California’s new stem cell agency may need to create regional laboratories around the state to carry out research without conflicting with Bush administration rules, the agency’s interim chief said Tuesday.

Under the administration’s policies, scientists may not use federal funds -- or even equipment paid for with federal money -- to perform research on groups of stem cells, known as stem cell lines, that were created after August 2001.

The regional labs would be a way of allowing researchers to work without worrying about violating federal rules, Zach Hall, the agency’s interim president, said in a meeting here with reporters.

Hall’s suggestion regarding regional laboratories comes as UCLA prepares to launch a $20-million stem cell research institute on campus.

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The UCLA plan, to be announced today, is one of the biggest efforts by a California university to get in position to take advantage of $3 billion for embryonic stem cell research approved by voters in November.

“Every major medical center and undergraduate campus in the state is actively thinking about stem cell research -- and the funding that is coming down the line,” said Dr. Owen Witte, a UCLA professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics who will head the new campus institute.

UCLA officials said they plan to spend $20 million over the next five years to create 12 faculty positions and expand laboratory space for stem cell research. The money, officials said, is coming from a collaboration with various entities on campus including the David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, the college and chancellor’s office.

Witte, a well-known cancer researcher, will direct UCLA’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine. He said scientists there are particularly interested in three areas that could benefit from stem cell research: cancer, neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, and HIV/AIDS.

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Major cities throughout the state also are in contention with proposals to be the site for the stem cell agency’s permanent headquarters. With today as the deadline for proposals, Mayor James K. Hahn is scheduled to describe Los Angeles’ bid this morning at a downtown news conference, and similar announcements are planned elsewhere in the state.

But the timetable for money to flow to researchers remains unclear.

Hall said Tuesday that the stem cell agency is probably months away from distributing its first grants. Ultimately, the agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, plans to distribute about $300 million a year for a decade.

Bob Klein, who led the campaign for the ballot initiative and is the chairman of the institute’s board, originally called for distributing the first grants by May. Hall referred to that date as a hope that expressed the need to act quickly.

Before grants can be made, the agency has to begin selling bonds authorized by November’s ballot initiative, which passed with 59% of the vote. The ultimate cost to taxpayers over the 30-year course of the bonds will be about $6 billion. But the bonds cannot be sold until two lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the ballot measure are resolved.

In the meantime, the stem cell agency has yet to hire most its staff and is in temporary office space here. The agency is operating under a $3-million loan from the state until bonds can be sold.

This week, the state attorney general’s office conceded that the suits could delay the bond sale and asked the California Supreme Court to quickly resolve the cases. The suits challenge the ballot measure on several grounds, including the lack of legislative oversight on how the money is spent.

Critics of the measure include some who oppose all embryonic stem cell research because embryos are destroyed to create the stem cell lines. Others say they support the research but question whether the ballot measure provides adequate measures to protect taxpayer dollars and ensure openness.

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Hall, who left a USC professorship to head the agency until a permanent president could be found, is running daily operations and serving as chief scientific officer.

In his role, Hall, a former director of one of the National Institutes of Health, will lay much of the groundwork for how grants will be applied for and awarded. Those decisions are anxiously awaited at the many state campuses and research institutions hoping to get a share of the agency’s largesse.

In his comments, his most extensive since being named interim president earlier this month by the agency’s independent board of directors, Hall spoke of the tension between voters’ high expectations and the often slow pace of science.

The $3 billion earmarked for embryonic stem cell research is a huge investment by voters, Hall said, adding that one of his main goals while he is president is to create a “basis for realistic expectations.”

“We don’t know if stem cell therapy will work,” he said. “That’s what this initiative will try to find out.”

Still, Hall said he saw important reasons for backers of embryonic stem cell research to push its potential.

“In order to have an experiment work in the laboratory,” he said, “you need someone who absolutely believes in the experiment and someone who believes strenuously that it cannot work. You need both faith and skepticism.”

He said the first grants will probably go to graduate students and postdoctoral students who need training in working with human stem cell lines.

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Ultimately, Hall said, he believed there should be a priority on creating embryonic stem cell lines and on research in understanding and controlling them.

Hall also said there will be a need to create stem cell lines though a process sometimes called therapeutic cloning, in which a donated egg is stripped of its genetic material and the complete DNA from an individual is inserted. Many scientists believe creating such lines may provide the best hope for studying why diseases occur.

Currently, most embryonic stem cells used for research come from embryos that were created, but not used, for in vitro fertilizations.


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