New life for California stem cell agency

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The Oakland Tribune

Disappointment turned to elation last week in California for stem cell researchers and activists after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered a $150 million loan to the state’s stem cell agency in response to the president’s veto of a bill to boost federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

“With one stroke, the president energized the CIRM‘s program,” said Zach Hall, president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM.

The CIRM had been limping along for nearly two years, unable to fulfill its mission to dole out $300 million annually over 10 years for stem cell research because of several lawsuits blocking the state from issuing bonds. The agency was created by Proposition 71 in 2004.

Now, the institute’s leaders must quickly ramp up. They expect to receive the $150 million, taken out of the state’s general fund, in the next few months.

Hall said the influx of funding is coming at a good time because the agency is getting its policies in place.

Medical and ethical standards are expected to be approved at an Aug. 2 meeting of the 29-member committee overseeing the agency.

CIRM‘s intellectual property rules are in a public comment period, and its grant administration protocols are about to go through the same process.

By the time the agency issues a call for grant proposals, chooses projects to fund and approves the grants, checks to scientists around the state likely won’t go out until early 2007, Hall said.

“We think we’ll be in great shape to move right ahead,” he said.

John Simpson of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which has been monitoring CIRM‘s policy decisions, said that the agency needs a clear plan for governing ownership of any scientific discoveries made with state funds before issuing any grants.

“You wouldn’t shoot a $150 million movie without a script,” he said.

The foundation on Tuesday filed a lawsuit challenging three patents that give broad rights to embryonic stem cells used for research to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, WARF.

The patents resulted from work done in the late 1990s by James Thompson at the University of Wisconsin. Thompson was the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells.

Some scientists and patient advocacy groups, such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, have said the patents are too broad and are inhibiting research because of the costs that must be paid to WARF.

WARF attorneys have said that it will require royalties on any treatments developed from research funded by Proposition 71.

The CIRM has no plans to participate in the suit, officials said.

“The state has no interest in preventing anyone from getting patent royalties,” said Robert Klein, chairman of the committee overseeing CIRM.

Besides getting guidelines in place, the CIRM has other challenges. The state still has to overcome the pending lawsuit — headed for a state appeals court by December.

Three taxpayer and consumer organizations are appealing a ruling by an Alameda County Superior Court judge issued in April upholding the CIRM.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue that the agency operates outside state control and is therefore unconstitutional.

The plaintiffs have said they lose in state appeals court, they will appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Contact Rebecca Vesely at [email protected]

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