State moves ahead on stem cell funding

Although federal funding for embryonic stem cell research faces a presidential roadblock, California researchers are forging ahead with plans for billions of dollars in voter-approved state stem cell funds.

On Tuesday, the University of California regents voted unanimously to give blanket authority to UC President Robert Dynes to approve preliminary plans — at a cost of up to $1.5 million per campus — for new buildings and facilities improvements related to UC stem cell projects.

In April, research institutions associated with eight UC campuses received more than half of the funding from the first round of grants — totaling $12.1 million — awarded by the state’s new stem cell agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, located in San Francisco.

Funding for those grants was drawn from the sale of bond anticipation notes, since the $3 billion approved through the passage of Proposition 71 in November 2004 is currently on hold while the institute defends itself against legal challenges. In late April of this year, a judge ruled against lawsuits that challenged the constitutionality of the institute, but if the matter goes to the state’s Supreme Court, the court battles could continue through to the end of 2007, said Robert Klein, chairman of the institute’s Independent Citizen’s Oversight Committee.

Nonetheless, Klein said on Tuesday that he was confident that “California can deliver” the funds for embryonic stem cell research even if President George Bush prevents such support at the federal level.

“California will be the dominant player in the foreseeable future,” Klein said, who said another $30 million of “bridge” bond financing would be announced within the next few weeks.

With expected awards of up to $300 million annually for 10 years, UC campuses should be prepared to make competitive bids for the research grants, the UC vice president of budget, Larry Hershman, told the regents on Tuesday. In supporting documents on the matter given to the UC regents, UC staff noted that there were a number of campuses with a “high probability” of receiving grants from the CIRM.

That likelihood is strong because eight UC employees are members of the Independent Citizen’s Oversight Committee, charges a new lawsuit filed last month by the same plaintiffs involved in the ongoing legal challenge against California’s stem cell institute.

“The ICOC is aptly named because we believe it’s independent from the citizens of the state,” said Terry Thompson, attorney for one of the plaintiffs, the National Tax Limitation Foundation. “This $3 billion is controlled by an elitist group, some of the medical elite, including the University of California.”

A spokeswoman for the University of California, Jennifer Ward, said there was no conflict of interest in having UC employees at one campus vote on grants for different campuses, since they acted as individual entities.

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