Thursday, October 26, 2006

UCD Stem Cell Center in Works

UCD Stem Cell Center in Works
Share of $3 billion in state funds is at stake.
By Jim Downing - Bee Staff Writer

Legal challenges have California's $3 billion in voter-approved embryonic stem cell research funding in limbo, but that's not keeping the state's universities from moving ahead with plans to spend it.

At the University of California, Davis, a $75 million stem cell research center is in the works in a former warehouse at the university's Stockton Boulevard medical center in Sacramento.

The $22 million first phase of construction -- yet to be officially approved by the UC Regents -- would be paid for out of university funds. Officials are gambling that by going forward with the new building, the UC Davis campus would put itself in a stronger position to eventually win a share of the $3 billion in state funding -- assuming it eventually comes through.

Proposition 71, which authorizes the research funds, was passed in November 2004 but was soon challenged in court by taxpayers rights groups and a Christian organization on grounds that it was unconstitutional. An Alameda County judge upheld the initiative in April, but opponents appealed. A final decision is not expected until next year.

The centerpiece of the Stockton Boulevard facility will be a federally approved, ultra-clean laboratory where researchers can safely grow the cells that ultimately will be injected into humans to treat diseases.

To staff the center, the university is building up its team of stem cell researchers and has signed four top scientists from around the world in the past year.

The new director of the Davis program, Jan Nolta, starts work Nov. 1. Nolta, who grew up in Willows, was recruited from Washington University in St. Louis along with longtime collaborator Gerhard Bauer, an Austrian native who is an an expert in the design and management of ultra-clean laboratories.

Nolta and Bauer were at the UC Davis Medical Center on Wednesday as U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, toured the laboratories of Mark Zern, an organ transplant expert whose research team is studying ways to use embryonic stem cells to regenerate the liver.

Nolta, 45, will head a group of about 25 researchers who will form the core of the university's stem cell program.

Nolta specializes in immune system disorders, but she said the Davis embryonic stem cell program will be broad, working toward cures for a wide range of disorders, including damaged hearts and arteries, liver disease, AIDS, diabetes and neurological disorders like Parkinson's disease.

Bauer and Nolta said that they were drawn both by the promise of research funding not available elsewhere in the United States, as well as the expertise in animal research on the UC Davis campus. While embryonic stem cell research could someday lead to treatments for a wide range of diseases, so far no treatments using the technology have been tested in humans.

"We're strongly focused on the animal models to see how the stem cells work," Nolta said.

The new facilities in Sacramento will be built without federal funding, avoiding restrictions that have dogged university embryonic stem cell researchers around the country. Laboratories that receive federal funding are prohibited from using human embryonic stem cell lines derived after Aug. 9, 2001. As a result, universities have had to set up redundant "NIH--free" laboratories to conduct research with newer embryonic stem cell lines.

"The new building is being built out and outfitted with no NIH dollars ... so we can do what we want in there," Nolta said.

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