California’s stem cell agency plans to spend up to $13 million on research in 2008 to investigate techniques that do not destroy human embryos. It’s a shift from the institute’s original goal of funding mostly embryonic stem cell research.
The agency is also opening up its grant process for the first time to for-profit businesses.
The moves come a week after scientists announced dramatic breakthroughs in transforming adult-human skin cells into the equivalent of embryonic stem cells. While the money could go towards any type of stem cell research, this is the first time that funding of this scope has been opened to methods outside of embryonic stem cell research.
“We will fund the best science,” said Melissa King, a spokeswoman for the institute. “We don’t know exactly how it will shake out until the review actually happens.”
The $3 billion California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is the world’s largest source of funding for research into embryonic stem cells, which have the ability to become any type of cell in the human body and could lead to therapies for diseases ranging from cancer to diabetes. The initiative was launched in response to President Bush‘s restrictions on embryonic research.
November’s stem cell development, a technique referred to as reprogramming, prompted an international wave of elation among both scientists and opponents of human embryonic stem cell research, because it appears to offer a way round the ethical arguments against destroying embryos.
“It’s a moonwalk for stem cell research,” Richard Murphy, interim president of the California stem cell agency, told the San Diego Union-Tribune on Nov. 21.
The institute disclosed its plans in a request for grant applications posted on its website Thursday.
The new funding plans are part of a $25 million proposal to search for new sources of cells. Up to half could go towards reprogramming research, although that will depend on what type of projects scientists propose.
The institute had been preparing to finance research into promising alternatives to using human embryonic stem cells months before the November breakthrough was announced. Arlene Chiu, who resigned as a chief scientist at the institute in August, was the key figure in developing the institute’s plans to find new cell lines.
“We want to support the full spectrum of human pluripotent stem cell types and experimental approaches,” she said at an Oct. 3 meeting of institute directors in San Diego.
The institute’s request for grants said that pluripotent stem cell lines — the type with the ability to transform themselves into various types of cells — may be derived from “unexpected sources,” so it wanted to see a “broad range of research using the full spectrum of human cell types and experimental approaches.”
Two of the scientists whose work generated the hoopla earlier this month, Jamie Thomson of the University of Wisconsin and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan, are now eligible for grants from the California institute.
Both men did their work on human skin cells outside California, which made them ineligible for funding in the Golden State. But Thomson is now affiliated with the University of California, Santa Barbara, which has pumped $1 million into a lab for him. And Yamanaka is linked to the Gladstone Institute in San Francisco. They are part of a wave of about 50 stem cell scientists who have come to California since the stem cell agency was created three years ago. Both would seem to be able to meet the CIRM requirement that they make a “10 percent effort” on research in California.
The institute also said that, for the first time, businesses could compete for the grants along with academic and nonprofit research institutions. The businesses do not have to be headquartered in California, but their research sites must be.
The plan to fund businesses drew a cautionary note from CIRM watchdog John Simpson of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica. He noted the current controversy over conflicts of interest at the institute, which has prompted the California state controller to order an audit of the entire agency.
“We’ve already seen an example of an improper attempt by a stem cell board member to influence an award to his nonprofit research institution,” he said in a news release late Friday. “The possibility of abuse is even greater when the biotech industry goes after the money.”
The institute plans to approve the grants in June 2008, with checks going out as early as August.
David Jensen is editor of the California Stem Cell Report.