State stem cell committee fast tracks grant program

Feeling left behind in the race to advance stem cell research, California's stem cell institute, which has had its funding held up in lawsuits, gave quick approval Wednesday to a grant program for $150 million recently authorized by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Although some members of the institute's Independent Citizens Oversight Committee expressed reservations about the limited scope of a staff-recommended grant program that would focus specifically on human stem cell research, the group eventually unanimously approved the plan in order to help the state remain competitive in the burgeoning scientific field.

Officially called the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the grant organization was approved by voters in 2004 through a ballot measure that authorized $3 billion of taxpayer dollars for stem cell research in the next decade. However, subsequent lawsuits challenging the institute's constitutionality have prevented the institute from carrying out its primary function: issuing research grants.

After President George Bush vetoed expanded federal funding of embryonic stem cell research last month, Schwarzenegger pledged state funds to jump-start California's research efforts.

Although scientists and patient advocates see promise in stem cells to cure diseases and repair damaged tissue in the human body, embryonic stem cell research remains controversial because it uses frozen human embryos, often obtained from the surplus at fertility clinics.

Several committee members, including Dr. Richard Murphy of the UC San Diego School of Medicine, expressed concern about the new grant program because it was only open to those working on human stem cells.

ICOC President Zach Hall noted that other forms of stem cell research can receive federal funds and that human stem cell research is picking up speed around the world — often funded by private institutions or philanthropic organizations — taking with it the “best and brightest” scientists in the nascent field. A broad research scope would attract too many applications, which would slow down the institute’s fast-track efforts to get moving on supporting research in California, he added.

“We’re on training wheels here, the challenge of getting this stuff out at the same time we’re trying to build our [institute’s] infrastructure,” Hall said.

With a grant plan approved, California’s stem cell institute is expected to issue a formal request for applications for the research funding in August, with the first group of grant approvals coming in February 2007, Hall said.

Addressing a key concern that some stem cell critics have about how the human eggs might be obtained, the final draft for the institute’s medical and ethical standards regulations approved bythe committee Wednesday included new language that would not allow donors to be paid for eggs offered for research.

Susan Vogel, a representative for the Pro-Choice Alliance for Responsible Research, said if the committee had not adopted the language they would have “crossed over some very important bright lines.”

beslinger@examiner.com

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