California Dreamin’: Proposition 71 puts stem cell research on fast track

Somewhat lost among the rising cheers of public and private research institutions after the passage of California Proposition 71, a measure that will provide nearly $3 billion in public funding in the state for stem cell research over the next 10 years, w

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SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Somewhat lost among the rising cheers of public and private research institutions after the passage of California Proposition 71, a measure that will provide nearly $3 billion in public funding in the state for stem cell research over the next 10 years, was this stunning fact: never before had voters directly exerted their will to create funding for medical research. "This is an incredible milestone," says John Reed, M.D., Ph.D., president and chief executive officer of The Burnham Institute, La Jolla, Calif. "To the extent that politics now mingles with the scientific agenda and voters were willing to essentially (override) national policy and say 'we are going to support this kind of research anyway' is really quite stunning."
Also stunning is the amount of money that is now available. With roughly $300 million in funding each year from the newly-formed California Institute for Regenerative Medicine – or about ten times the amount of funding provided nationally by NIH – scientific organizations in California can now go about the work of creating new cell lines, building research facilities and recruiting the best and brightest to the field of stem cell research.
"Stem cells is such a promising area of research," says David Gollaher, Ph.D., chief executive officer of the California Health Institute. "Pick any major disease that has a genetic component and this could turn out to be the skeleton key that unlocks our understanding of how to treat them."
Still, leaders in the stem cell field are quick to point out that the 10 years of funding provided by California shouldn't be seen as the time frame for creating therapeutic compounds to treat such conditions as diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and spinal chord injuries.
"While stem cell research is obviously very promising, we should remember that it is still in the very early stages. The first stem cell derivation was in 1998, so there are still a lot of the fundamental questions that need to be answered," says Nancy Beddingfield, spokeswoman for The Burnham Institute.
Further, because NIH policy requires that organizations like Burnham which receive NIH funding need to keep the stem cell programs separate from other NIH-funded programs, expectations are that the first few years will see as much as 20 to 25 percent of total funding earmarked for building new research facilities.
For companies operating in the commercial drug discovery and life sciences business, the immediate impact from Proposition 71 may be seen indirectly, via services provided to universities and institutes firing up their stem cell research engines.
At Invitrogen, Anthony Johnson, area business manager for stem cells says, "We definitely anticipate using some of these funds for developing projects. But we see ourselves as enablers early on with products like cursory media, cell testing, cell banking and even collaborations that use our bioinformatics tools."
At StemCells Inc., Palo Alto, Calif., the company has been actively conducting stem cell research on adult stem cell lines, via private funding and money raised through its public offering. As such, a press release after the passage of the referendum stated it was "business as usual." Martin McGlynn, president and chief executive officer, in a prepared statement says "Not only will Prop. 71 help California build upon its leadership in the field, but we believe it will encourage young scientists to pursue careers in stem cell biology and related fields in California, which is critical to the future health of our industry. Our R&D programs, all of which concentrate on diseases of, or injury to, the central nervous system, the liver and the pancreas, have been funded primarily by our shareholders, rather than by the public sector."
Yet whether funded by the government or individual companies from their corporate bankrolls, the $3 billion is sure to cement California as the leader in life sciences research in this country.
But Burnham's Reed, who also serves on the Independent Citizen's Oversight Committee which will manage the grant process, says that the research community needs to provide a clear message to the public of projected outcomes. "It's important that people understand we are at the very beginning of understanding this," he says. "People shouldn't expect that after the ten years are up we will have fully developed treatments. The paths to FDA approval are nebulous at this point, but in ten years I don't think we will be ready for clinical trails of compounds. So we need proper expectations that this will be to provide for the basic early research that is necessary before taking that next step."

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