Stem Cell Loans Advance
State Panel Approves Funds for Research Institute, as Legal Challenge Continues.
By Jim Wasserman - Bee Staff Writer
California's $3 billion stem cell research program marked a key advance Monday when a state committee cleared the way for $195 million in funding despite legal challenges that continue to block the funds authorized by voters in 2004.
The action by the committee that oversees state stem cell funding allows a $150 million state loan and another $45 million loan backed by California foundations and investors to quickly fund the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
The money is expected to reach the institute in early December, and much of it may be awarded within months to research scientists. The temporary funding marks a substantial first leap for a program said to be the nation's front edge of embryonic stem cell research.
"It makes the California program the largest program in the U.S., bigger than any state, bigger than the nation, and in fact, bigger than any other nation," said Robert N. Klein, CIRM's chair and a leading force behind the 2004 ballot drive known as Proposition 71.
Klein said the new funding "allows us opportunities to have a full spectrum of research grants, comprehensive grants and seed money grants."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger authorized the $150 million loan last July, characterizing it as a boost for the state's biotechnology industry. In a statement Monday, he said, "Today's action keeps California on the forefront as a national leader in stem cell research."
The state loan and the other backed by investors including the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and David and Lucile Packard Foundation will be repaid from the sale of bonds after the stem cell institute wins a final court victory, said Anne Sheehan, chief deputy director for policy of the California Department of Finance.
If the program does not survive a legal challenge, the funding -- formally known as bond anticipation notes -- will not be repaid, she said.
Opponents of the state's stem cell research program said they may sue to block the temporary funding.
"We may have an announcement for dealing with this further," said David Llewellyn, a Citrus Heights attorney for the California Family Bioethics Council.
The council and two other tax groups say CIRM lacks adequate state supervision and is rife with conflicts of interest favoring biotechnology companies.
The bioethics council opposes embryonic stem cell research, maintaining that stem cell advancements already are possible with umbilical cords and adult stem cells.
"I think it's disturbing that people who are so rancorous against the plaintiffs who want the court to review the legality of Proposition 71 are themselves willing to circumvent the law," Llewellyn said Monday.
In April, an Alameda Superior Court judge rejected Llewellyn's arguments and upheld the stem cell program.
Llewellyn has appealed and expects to submit final written arguments next week. Both sides plan to take their arguments to the state Supreme Court if necessary.
So far the stem cell institute, which aims to steer $300 million a year to research, has awarded only $12.1 million to train 170 aspiring state researchers.
But it is expected to award at least $104 million early next year, CIRM officials said Monday.
Many scientists believe embryonic stem cell breakthroughs will eventually regenerate human organs and tissue with nonspecialized cells that can be assigned particular functions.
But cures and potential therapies for conditions such as cancer, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injuries may be 20 years or more away -- or may never materialize, experts say.
Where research stands
GOAL: The stem cell institute aims to steer $300 million a year to research.
TO DATE: $12.1 million awarded to train 170 aspiring state researchers.
EARLY NEXT YEAR: It is expected to award at least $104 million.
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