California's Stem-Cell Initiative on Hold ; the State's First-in-the-Nation Move to Support Embryonic Stem-Cell Research Is Stuck in Court. Lawmakers Are Reviewing It, Too

By Daniel B. Wood writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 8, 2006 | Go to article overview

California's Stem-Cell Initiative on Hold ; the State's First-in-the-Nation Move to Support Embryonic Stem-Cell Research Is Stuck in Court. Lawmakers Are Reviewing It, Too


Daniel B. Wood writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Jeanne Loring is all dressed up in her lab coat and has - so to speak - nowhere to go.

As co-director of the stem-cell center for the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, Calif., Ms. Loring has spent the past 15 months acquiring incubators, biosafety hoods, and microscopes to tackle what she and colleagues feel is the most compelling medical development in decades. They hope stem-cell research can provide cures for diseases ranging from Alzheimer's to heart disease.

But Loring and her coterie of 30 researchers - and similar operations across the state - are being stopped in their tracks. A 2004 citizens initiative, which catapulted California to the forefront of the nation's nascent embryonic stem-cell research industry by approving $3 billion in state funds, is stuck in court. Although arguments were heard last week and a superior-court judge may rule in coming days - regarding proper state oversight - the appellate process may go on for well over a year, legal analysts say.

State legislators are also looking to address public concerns with a host of new controls spelling out auditing procedures, possible conflicts of interest, royalty agreements, and protection for human egg donors.

"We have stopped holding our breath and are not turning blue anymore," says Loring, whose staff is taking pay cuts to keep grad students and postdoctoral clinicians on payroll until state money is freed for the project. The Burnham center has already won a grant of $1.5 million over three years from the state agency created by voters. But until the court case is settled, no such money can be dispersed.

The lab currently is supported by a combination of private money, foundation grants, and National Institutes of Health subsidies. But it is not permitted to use federal dollars, the largest portion of its funds, to work on new embryonic stem-cell lines. "We are hot on the trail of the biggest, most important development in science since the human genome project, but can only work in fits and starts," Loring says.

Known as the Stem Cell Research and Cures Act, Proposition 71 was approved by 59 percent of California voters in November 2004. The measure allocated $300 million a year for a decade and created a state agency (called the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM), as well as a 29-member citizen oversight committee.

Controversy and criticism followed almost immediately - partly because of the scope and complexity of the idea, partly because no state had ever attempted such an idea separate from the federal government. The Bush administration prohibited federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, except on a limited number of existing embryonic stem-cell lines.

Other challenges included new guidelines regarding peer review, ethical safeguards, and patient protections. There were also problems forging ahead into a new realm of research that had not previously existed. …

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