S.D. scientists make pitch for stem cell funds

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Local institutes would share research facility

San Diego Union-Tribune

Scientists from four top research institutes ” with expertise in stem cell biology, chemistry, engineering and ethics ” could one day work together in a 135,000-square-foot building that would be the hub for stem cell research in San Diego.

Representatives of the San Diego Consortium for Regenerative Medicine shared this vision yesterday with a panel from the state’s stem cell institute that will help decide how to distribute $220 million in grant money for the construction of new research facilities.

The panel has been holding public hearings throughout the state to get an idea of what it should require from the research institutes that apply for major facilities grants.

Its fourth and final public hearing, held on Harbor Island, attracted representatives from institutes as far away as Stanford, all hoping to get a piece of the facilities grants made available by the state’s $3 billion stem cell initiative.

“We have a unique situation here in San Diego,” said Salk Institute stem cell scientist Fred Gage. “That is, the four major research institutes . . . have concluded that by sharing and cooperating with each other as a consortium, we can more quickly and effectively achieve our aims in stem cell research and regenerative medicine.”

Joining Salk in the consortium are the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, the Scripps Research Institute and the University of California San Diego.

Each organization brings a particular area of expertise to the effort: Scripps brings high-end chemistry and high-throughput screening, Burnham brings the ability to create new stem cell lines, Salk bring basic biology and the insertion of genes into human embryonic stem cells, and UCSD bring its medical school, engineering, physics and philosophy departments, Gage said.

The consortium also includes community business leaders, such as Padres owner John Moores and Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs. It also will tap into the biotechnology community of more than 500 companies, which already have personnel and project ties to the research institutes, Gage said.

Yesterday’s hearing was the first time members of the San Diego consortium, including UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox, appeared publicly together, and it offered a glimpse of the project they have been working on for months.

Although the bricks-and-mortar plans for the building are still in the planning stages, the consortium has more definitive plans for programs.

A junior research fellow program will recruit 10 to 15 outstanding young scientists straight out of their M.D. or Ph.D. training who wish to commit their careers to human stem cell research and its application to disease, Gage said.

A senior scholars program will give basic, clinical and industrial scientists or government policy or ethics experts a three-month residency during which they can participate in shared citywide training activities, he said.

The building also will house a library of cells derived from patients with various diseases, as well as disease models generated by the newest methods, Gage said.

The consortium has four main objectives for its work, he said:

— To stimulate new approaches to complex medical problems by promoting close collaborations between scientists from multiple disciplines who will rub elbows every day.

— To invent the next generation of tools and instrumentation to further support and advance the research.

— To ensure sustained leadership and creativity by recruiting and training the next generation of scientists. For this younger generation, thinking about scientific problems in a multidisciplinary way will be automatic, Gage said.

— To maximize the community’s support for the research they voted to fund. Gage said the consortium plans education and outreach programs for teachers, students and the public at large. Through such programs, the public will learn about scientific and medical progress and aspirations, he said.

The consortium’s plans got approval from at least one taxpayer advocacy group that has been closely following the work of the state stem cell institute.

“I don’t know why the consortium emerged or how they did it, but the fact that it has is one of the key developments that Proposition 71 (the stem cell initiative) envisioned,” said John Simpson of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

Proposals for such collaboration should be given extra weight in the grant application process, Simpson said.

Whether that happens remains to be seen. The facilities working group will use the information gathered at its hearings when deciding on the criteria for the major facilities grants. Applications for those grants are expected to go out late this summer.

Terri Somers: (619) 293-2028; [email protected]

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