Stem cell plans include creation of embryo bank

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The San Diego Union-Tribune (California)

California’s stem cell institute yesterday unveiled its plans for spending $3 billion in a 149-page, no-hype document that sets what experts and patient advocates described as conservative and attainable goals.

Not one stem cell therapy is expected to be approved for market within the next 10 years of state-funded stem cell research under the proposal. But the plan would allocate funding for jump-starting embryonic stem cell research and the creation of a statewide embryo bank.

More than $1.6 billion would be directed toward scientific research, with the rest going toward facilities, infrastructure, training and public outreach.

In the first few years, the institute would make millions of dollars available for studying tissue engineering, the auto-immune system and the development of human eggs and embryos. Later, after basic scientific discoveries are made, there would be $451 million with which research institutes and private industry could begin early-stage clinical trials on animals and humans.

“We didn’t set out consciously to be cautious, but we did want to set goals that we think we can achieve with some luck,” said Zach Hall, president of the institute, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Taxpayer advocacy groups that have been monitoring the state’s stem cell effort since the voter initiative was approved in 2004 said they appreciated the plan’s educational tone.

“During the Proposition 71 campaign, proponents implied that miraculous cures were just around the corner,” said John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica.

“This plan acknowledges just how difficult the task ahead is and is a welcome change from the hype that has all too often been associated with stem cell research,” Simpson said. “Californians are entitled to an honest assessment of the prospects for research they are funding.”

Some patient advocates, eager for cures that will knock out the deadly diseases affecting them or their loved ones, called the plan too conservative.

“Because they’re so often criticized for overpromising, which I don’t think they do, I think they’ve overcompensated in the wrong direction,” said Don Reed of Fremont, who heads the Roman Reed Foundation, named for a son who was paralyzed in a sports accident.

“I think they will go a lot farther than they state in the plan,” Reed said. “I expect my son to walk in 10 years.”

For the past 10 months, a committee of scientists, academics, patient advocates and biotechnology industry insiders met regularly to develop the road map that will guide the kind of research that taxpayers will fund and how it will be funded.

Balancing the hope and urgency of patient advocates with the financial realism of biotechnology insiders and the caution of scientists was one of the difficult hurdles that faced the committee.

The strategic plan will be discussed Tuesday and Wednesday by the 29 members of the institute’s governing board, who are expected to make revisions before adopting a final strategic plan.

Since it can take up to a dozen years and $1 billion to bring a new therapy to market, the committee starts out its plan by saying that it does not expect to be able to fully fund a stem cell therapy.

However, it does aim to fund the creation of a pipeline of scientific discoveries that improve understanding of stem cell biology as well as the creation of several therapy candidates that may someday result in marketable products.

“The plan includes funding for many parallel programs,” Hall said. “I think it gives us a very rich pipeline so that the work can go on well after 10 years.”

San Diego-based stem cell scientists who will be applying for funding from the institute were enthusiastic after reading the proposal.

“I think many of the five-year goals we are well on track for accomplishing, which probably means we’ll be able to make the 10-year goals as well,” said Evan Snyder, a stem cell researcher at the Burnham Institute in La Jolla.

“I also think there’s a good appreciation (in the plan) for the fact that developing therapies depends on good fundamental knowledge of disease process and how cells work,” Snyder said.

He and his Burnham Institute colleague Jeanne Loring said they were excited with a plan to provide about $182 million to interdisciplinary teams of scientists. Some of these teams will start out with a plan of addressing a specific disease.

In the early years, an important part of the institute’s program will encourage scientist-initiated, curiosity-driven science relevant to the development of embryonic stem cell therapies. Limited federal funding for stem cell research makes the institute’s funding of this what-if science imperative, the strategic plan states.

Loring, one of many people interviewed by the committee drafting the plan, was enthusiastic to see that the funding included grants for scientists looking for many different ways to grow embryonic stem cell lines.

A consumer advocacy group, however, said the plan doesn’t provide enough funding in that controversial area of stem cell research.

It’s surprising that out of billions of dollars for research, the plan shortchanges research into alternative sources of potent stem cells,’ said Jesse Reynolds, of the Center for Genetics and Society.

“Spending more on work that might lead to potent stem cell lines without destroying embryos or requiring eggs would be better ‘bang for the buck.’ Research in this area could lead to opening up the restricted federal funds — worth hundreds of millions of dollars,” Reynolds said.

Recognizing that stem cell research will influence society in ways other than new therapies, the committee proposes to sponsor empirical research and conferences that take a more theoretical approach to dealing with moral issues. The report budgets $25.5 million for those programs.

Jesse Reynolds, a spokesman for the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, said that isn’t enough.

“The human genome project, which was a similar magnitude as (the stem cell institute), set aside 3 percent of its budget to study the ethical, legal, and social implications of their work,” Reynolds said. “Stem cell research holds potential to alleviate suffering, but raises a host of profound issues. By allocating less than 1 percent to examining these implications, the (institute) is overlooking a critical area.”

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