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Loans launch state’s stem cell ambitions

Times Staff Writer

Public money began flowing to embryonic stem cell research Friday for the first time since Californians voted to make their state a haven for a scientific endeavor that the Bush administration refused to fund on moral grounds.

Drawing on a state loan, the board created to oversee the ambitious enterprise awarded 72 grants to 20 institutions statewide for a total of about $45 million.

The funding is a fraction of the decade-long, $300-million-a-year juggernaut voters approved under 2004’s Proposition 71, the Stem Cell Research and Cures Act. But it signaled the determination of the voter-created California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to make the state a player in the nascent field even as the bonds remain frozen by litigation.

“We can’t afford to wait when it comes to advancing a life-saving science,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Friday at a news conference.

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To tide the state over during the lawsuits, Schwarzenegger arranged the $150-million state loan last summer on the day that President Bush vetoed legislation aimed at loosening federal funding restrictions.

Bush has expressed moral concerns about destruction of embryos during such research, as have several plaintiffs in the California lawsuits.

The state money exceeds the $38 million the National Institutes of Health spent on human embryonic stem cell research nationwide in 2006. Federal funding is limited to research on 22 embryonic stem cell lines -- each one a group of cells derived from the same embryo -- that existed before August 2001, the day Bush announced his policy.

“We all know every marathon starts with a first step,” Schwarzenegger said. “But let’s take that first step. Let’s start the marathon. Let’s not hold it up.”

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Schwarzenegger, on crutches because of his December skiing accident and flanked by people in wheelchairs, called the scientists doing stem cell research “our newest action heroes.”

The grants were a bonanza for the UC system, with UC San Francisco receiving eight; UCLA seven; UC San Diego and UC Irvine six each; and UC Riverside, UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis and UC Berkeley receiving two each. Even the new UC Merced got one. The biggest winner was Stanford University, which took home 12 grants. USC received four. The private nonprofit Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla received eight.

All 72 grants ranged from $251,000 to $808,000.

Friday’s two-year grants, aimed at young scientists and established veterans new to stem cell research, give a hint of the promise and challenges of this field of medical research. The work has generated both hope and hype since scientists at the University of Wisconsin derived the first human embryonic stem cells just eight years ago.

For the grant-awarding process, a group of 15 scientists from outside California and eight patient advocates from the institute’s oversight board ranked 231 proposals.

The top-scoring proposal, drawing $612,000, was from UC San Diego. It will look for the signal that triggers a human embryonic stem cell to develop into a particular type of brain neuron. Stem cells are able to form into any kind of cell in the body.

“If successful,” the proposal’s synopsis reads, “these experiments would provide a therapeutic strategy for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders that are characterized by loss of forebrain neurons.”

It went without saying that such a result, if it is achieved at all, would involve years of research beyond the two funded by the grant.

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“The project may not work, but the applicant is the right researcher to try it,” wrote the reviewers.

The board originally intended to award 30 grants for a total of about $24 million, but it increased the number of grants after seeing the scope and quality of the proposals, said Robert Klein, an influential backer of Proposition 71 and chairman of the oversight board.

“It’s a historic opportunity to make a difference,” Klein said.

After more than 12 hours of deliberation Thursday night and Friday morning, the full board made selections from the proposals, which were numbered and had the names of institutions and people removed. The institute staff advised board members, many of whom work for universities or institutions with proposals, on when to recuse themselves because of a possible conflict of interest.

The process drew some complaints from two government watchdog groups, which pointed out that Connecticut, which has a much smaller stem cell research effort, identified all the institutions and scientists it funded by name, including those rejected. The groups called on the board to publish the names of the California institutions that applied for grants but were denied.

But even they praised the spirited discussions and lengthy deliberations that went into choosing the grantees.

“Many of us had expressed concern that the board would act as a rubber stamp and not delve into this in a serious way,” said John Simpson of Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “This is a very good process.”

The litigation that has held up funding from the bond was brought by taxpayer groups and religious organizations. On Wednesday, a state appellate court heard oral arguments on the plaintiffs’ appeal of a decision by the Alameda County Superior Court in April that upheld the constitutionality of the institute and its citizen oversight committee. The plaintiffs have said they will go to the California Supreme Court if necessary.

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The state loan is to be repaid by bond money if the stem cell institute wins the lawsuit.

“They’re on their own if they lose the litigation,” said Ted Costa, who heads People’s Advocate, a Sacramento-based taxpayer organization that is one of the plaintiffs.

Friday’s awards were the first in a batch of three to be issued this spring, all funded by the state loan. The next will go to experienced stem cell scientists and the third to help fund shared laboratories.

The board named Friday’s grants in honor of Dr. Leon J. Thal, the chairman of UC San Diego’s neurosciences department who died this month in a plane crash. The renowned expert on Alzheimer’s disease was a member of the oversight board.

mary.engel@latimes.com


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