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California’s stem cell agency ponders its future
LOS ANGELES (AP) - The creation of California’s stem cell agency in 2004 was greeted by scientists and patients as a turning point in a field mired in debates about the destruction of embryos and hampered by federal research restrictions.
The taxpayer-funded institute wielded the extraordinary power to dole out $3 billion in bond proceeds to fund embryonic stem cell work with an eye toward treatments for a host of crippling diseases. Midway through its mission, with several high-tech labs constructed, but little to show on the medicine front beyond basic research, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine faces an uncertain future.
Is it still relevant nearly eight years later? And will it still exist when the money dries up?
The answers could depend once again on voters and whether they’re willing to extend the life of the agency.
Several camps that support stem cell research think taxpayers should not pay another cent given the state’s budget woes.
“It would be so wrong to ask Californians to pony up more money,” said Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society, a pro-stem cell research group that opposed Proposition 71, the state ballot initiative that formed CIRM.
CIRM leaders have shelved the idea of going back to voters for now, but may consider it down the road. The institute recently submitted a transition plan to Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature that assumes it will no longer be taxpayer-supported after the bond money runs out. CIRM is exploring creating a nonprofit version of itself and tapping other players to carry on its work.
“The goal is to keep the momentum going,” board Chairman Jonathan Thomas said in an interview.
So far, CIRM has spent some $1.3 billion on infrastructure and research. At the current pace, it will earmark the last grants in 2016 or 2017. Since most are multi-year awards, it is expected to stay in business until 2021.
So what have Californians received for their money so far?
The most visible investment is the opening of sleek buildings and gleaming labs at a dozen private and public universities built with matching funds. Two years ago, Stanford University unveiled the nation’s largest space dedicated to stem cell research _ 200,000 square feet that can hold 550 researchers.
There are no cures yet in the pipeline and CIRM has shifted focus, channeling money to projects with the most promise of yielding near-term results. Most of the money early on was funneled toward learning the basics and recruiting scientists.
“I was getting more interested in embryonic stem cells and I knew California would be a more friendly climate for that,” said Knoepfler, whose work focuses on why some embryonic stem cells trigger tumor growths.
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