Stem-cell institute issues first grants;

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The San Jose Mercury News

California’s stem-cell research institute, still hamstrung by lawsuits that have held up its $3 billion funding for more than a year, announced Monday it has finally begun issuing the first trickle of grants.

The grants are funded thanks to a $14 million infusion from six philanthropic organizations. But the institute remains so short on cash it is launching another plea for donations to keep the agency operating, even at a bare-bones level.

Supporters of the institute are planning a May 22 black-tie fundraiser that boasts the involvement of such luminaries as U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Gordon Getty and venture capitalist John Doerr.

“In a perfect world, I would like to feel we can raise $1 million,” said Deborah Strobin, who is organizing the event, which will command ticket prices of up to $10,000 per person for the entertainment and dinner.

Strobin, the wife of Edward Strobin, former Banana Republic chief operating officer who died of cancer in 2000, said she is encouraged that at least 250 people have said they are likely to attend. But as someone who voted for Proposition 71, which was supposed to allocate $300 million annually for a decade on stem-cell research, she hates seeing the program’s financing tied up in court.

“I find that extremely frustrating,” Strobin said.

But one consumer advocate raised questions about the fundraiser. John Simpson of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights said letting drug companies or stem-cell companies buy tickets at the event could create a potential conflict of interest if they later apply for the institute’s stem-cell research grants.

“If these things are going for $10,000 a pop, it would be kind of interesting to see who is putting up the $10,000 and why they are doing it,” he said.

Two lawsuits were filed against the stem-cell institute by groups challenging its operations on several grounds. Although a ruling is expected soon on the two suits, appeals could delay the institute’s funding for at least another year.

Given that delay, the institute has started asking for donations. On Monday, for example, the institute’s chairman, Robert Klein, announced the initiative had been given $500,000 from a person who had died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. An additional $500,000 was contributed by several donors last week. And the institute’s board Thursday agreed to consider putting the names of donors on the institute’s offices or research programs if their contribution was big enough.

Klein also said he is close to lining up $32 million from a variety of sources to keep the agency running through the end of this year.

Stem cells, the precursors to every tissue in the body, already are being used to treat people suffering from cancer and blood disorders. Many scientists believe the cells also can provide cures for other ailments, from Parkinson’s disease to diabetes.

The $12.1 million in grants the agency announced Monday it has handed out are intended to help train 169 students at 16 California universities and other non-profit institutions in the fundamentals of stem-cell biology. Several Bay Area institutions were among those receiving training grants, including students at Stanford University, the University of California-San Francisco, University of California-Berkeley, University of California-Santa Cruz and the J. Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco.

Even though the stem-cell institute’s research has been delayed because of the lawsuits, Zach Hall, the institute’s president, said being able to issue its first grants to train stem-cell scientists was an important milestone for the agency.

“This is indeed a day of celebration after what I would say was a long taxi down the runway,” said Hall.
Contact Steve Johnson at [email protected] or (408) 920-5043.

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