Tuesday, February 20, 2007

State Stem Cell Grants Awarded

State Stem Cell Grants Awarded
2 UCD Researchers Among Recipients of $45 Million.
By Jim Downing - Bee Staff Writer

Putting California on track to become the nation's leading backer of embryonic stem cell science, the state stem cell institute on Friday awarded its first 72 research grants, totaling nearly $45 million.

If all goes to plan, another $2.95 billion will follow over the next decade, dwarfing the $38 million a year the federal government now spends on such research.

"In one day, California has made a dramatic step forward," said Bob Klein, chair of the stem cell institute's governing board and leader of the campaign for the 2004 bond measure, Proposition 71, that authorized the funding.

The University of California system grabbed 32 of the grants announced Friday, valued at $20 million. Stanford University took a dozen awards, valued at about $7.6 million, the most of any single institution.

Locally, two UC Davis medical researchers will receive grants totaling $837,000 over two years.

All told, the awards announced Friday went to 20 different California universities and research institutes. The grants aim to expand the state's pool of embryonic stem cell researchers by funding startup investigations led by scientists new to the field.

Embryonic stem cells have the ability to develop into any type of cell in the body. Through research, scientists are learning how to guide that process.

Someday, doctors may be able to use embryonic stem cell therapies to treat a vast array of currently incurable conditions, from spinal cord injuries to Alzheimer's disease.

Ebenezer Yamoah, a medical school professor at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience, received $469,000 over two years to expand his work on age-related hearing loss. Yamoah studies the sound-transmitting cells attached to the tiny hairs in ears. Embryonic stem cell research may provide insight into ways to regenerate these cells, which often fail as people age.

Yamoah already is working with adult stem cells, which are not affected by federal research restrictions. The new state grant will allow him to expand his work, he said.

"I'm quite excited about the openness that the state has provided for investigators," he said. "I just want to start working."

Hari Reddi, a leading bone and cartilage researcher at the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, won $368,000 to expand his work to include embryonic stem cells. In the long term, such research could lead to ways for doctors to regenerate cartilage in knees and hips, rather than surgically replacing the joints.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger praised the stem cell committee's work and took a swipe at the federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research that prompted the $3 billion bond measure.

"We all know that we cannot afford to wait when it comes to advancing life-saving science," Schwarzenegger said. "This state doesn't wait. We move forward ... and eventually that will rub off on the rest of the country."

The 29-member oversight committee is scheduled to announce in March a second set of grants, worth roughly $80 million and targeted at well-established stem cell researchers.

Under Proposition 71, the state is authorized to issue bonds to fund as much as $3 billion in stem cell research over 10 years. So far, though, those bonds have been blocked by legal challenges from Christian and taxpayer groups.

In July, Schwarzenegger authorized a $150 million loan from the state to allow the institute to begin issuing research grants. Philanthropic organizations have loaned an additional $45 million.

Resolution of the legal challenges is expected by the end of the year. If the matter drags on and funding for the bonds remains blocked, Schwarzenegger said Friday he is prepared to offer additional money from the state.

"They have my backing all the way," the governor said of the state's stem cell researchers.

Under current law, federally funded research on embryonic stem cells is limited to cells derived before August 2001, a restriction that scientists say presents a number of problems. Research conducted with Proposition 71 funds will not have that restriction.

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