Stem Cell Agency Putting In For Stimulus

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Stem cell institutions may turn to the federal stimulus package to plug a financing gap for major facilities and research, said Bob Klein, chairman of California’s stem cell research funding agency.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine — with the help of a well-heeled Washington, D.C., lobbying firm — wants organizations like Novato’s Buck Institute for Age Research to seek some of the $1.5 billion that is earmarked in the $787 billion stimulus package for biomedical research facilities and construction.

That National Institutes of Health money is in addition to $8.5 billion in NIH funds to cover research projects over a 24-month period and $400 million for the National Science Foundation set aside to rehabilitate facilities and buy new equipment.

“The rules get made quickly and implemented quickly, and institutions are advised how to apply,” said Klein.

The Buck Institute was one of 12 research havens to win $271 million in grants from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine last May to build more than $800 million in major stem cell facilities. But the past year’s economic turbulence has shredded the bond market and forced many philanthropists to pull back, and California’s state budget problems have made banks wary of lending for buildings the state stem cell agency may not be able to fund.

The stimulus package could provide those matching funds, Klein said.

“Our grantees are perfectly situated — they’re in construction or about to go,” Klein said. “They can clearly demonstrate that they’re going to create jobs.”

CIRM’s own cash crunch is another story — potentially solved in the short term by a private placement of $200 million in bonds this spring — but there, too, the stimulus package could play a major role.

While the $8.5 billion pot of NIH cash is aimed at basic research, CIRM’s upcoming rounds of grants focuses more on moving beaker-ready projects into the clinic. Translational grants headed for human trials were recently peer reviewed, Klein said, and $210 million in grants and loans for “disease teams,” made up of companies and research institutions, will be awarded in the fall.

“With $8.5 billion being pushed into basic and applied research, there will be a huge component of discoveries that will end in 24 months and without the funding in place to take it forward into human trials and through the ‘valley of death,’” he said.

CIRM hired the Podesta Group, a Washington, D.C., lobbying and media relations firm, to devise a funding strategy. Podesta’s contract is reportedly $200,000 over 10 months.

“They really need to be putting an effort on beefing up the science office rather than chasing ephemeral goals on the political stage in Washington,” said John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica group that tracks CIRM policies and spending.

Contact the author at: [email protected] / (415) 288-4939

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