Stem Cell Grants Grow
UCD Labs Share $4.8 Million From State Institute's New Funds
By Jim Downing - Bee Staff Writer
Mark Zern is trying to figure out how to grow adult human livers, more or less from scratch.
Alice Tarantal hopes to find a way to regenerate failed kidneys.
On Friday afternoon, both University of California, Davis, School of Medicine researchers got a big boost, winning a combined $4.8 million in funding from the state stem cell institute.
"To be able to explore human embryonic stem cell differentiation towards kidney-related cell types -- we wouldn't have been able to do that without this funding," said Tarantal, a professor of pediatrics who directs the Center for Excellence in Translational Human Stem Cell Research at UC Davis. "We're very excited that we're going to be able to do this work."
At a meeting in Los Angeles on Friday, the state panel charged with distributing the $3 billion in stem cell funding approved by California voters in 2004 issued 29 four-year grants worth $74.6 million to scientists at a dozen different universities and research institutes.
Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, took seven awards, valued at $17.4 million, the most of any single institution.
Combined with the $45 million in two-year grants given out last month, Friday's awards edge California past the National Institutes of Health as the world's largest single source of funding for embryonic stem cell research. An additional $1.1 million in two-year grants was awarded Friday.
The NIH last year budgeted about $38 million for embryonic stem cell research. Under current law, however, federally funded research on embryonic stem cells is limited to cells derived before August 2001, a restriction that scientists say presents a variety of problems. Research conducted with Proposition 71 funds does not have that restriction.
While last month's grants were aimed at scientists new to embryonic stem cell work, Friday's awards targeted researchers already well-established in the field.
Zern, a liver transplant expert, has been working with stem cells for about seven years, he said. Frustrated by the chronic shortage of livers available for transplant, Zern has been working to develop a way to grow fully functioning liver tissue in the laboratory, starting from stem cells.
"If we have an immortal liver-cell line, we could do whole-liver cell transplantation," he said.
That goal is still a long way off, he said. With the $2.5 million he will receive over four years, Zern will compare the behavior of liver cells grown from three different sources -- embryonic stem cells, fetal liver cells and bone marrow cells -- when they are injected into mice and later monkeys.
Tarantal plans to use her $2.3 million grant to develop a way to tell whether embryonic stem cells that have been "instructed" to develop into kidney cells function as intended once implanted into an animal. The research is a step toward her eventual goal of restoring failed kidneys.
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.
Judges have upheld the legality of Proposition 71 in both an Alameda Superior Court decision last April and a 1st District Court of Appeal ruling in February. But the case may still be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
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.
Stem cell institute spokesman Dale Carlson said resolution of the legal challenges is expected by the end of the year. Schwarzenegger said in February he is prepared to offer additional money from the state in the event that the litigation drags on and funding for the bonds remains blocked.
The next grants -- up to $48.5 million to build and outfit embryonic stem cell lab space -- are scheduled to be announced in July.
The state stem cell institute's governing board awarded about $75 million in four-year grants Friday.
INSTITUTION # OF GRANTS AMOUNT
UC San Francisco 7 $17,395,875
Stanford 6 $15,209,557
UC San Diego 3 $7,528,380
UC Irvine 3 $7,436,370
Burnham Institute for Medical Research 2 $6,071,998
UCLA 2 $5,033,444
UC Davis 2 $4,761,654
J. David Gladstone Institutes 1 $3,164,000
Salk Institute for Biological Studies 1 $2,879,210
CHA Regenerative Medicine Institute 1 $2,556,066
Children's Hospital of Los Angeles 1 $2,551,088
TOTAL 29 $74,587,642
Source: California Institute for Regenerative Medicine
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