California stem cell ball rolling, sort of

The nearly $40 million in grants seen as statement that initiative is still alive

By | September 15, 2005

Despite ongoing legal controversy over the constitutionality of its mandate, the $3 billion California stem cell initiative has decided to award its first set of grants totaling almost $40 million.

"I think it makes a strong statement that we are going forward, and will not be stopped," Dennis Clegg, chair of the department of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a grant recipient, told The Scientist. "The voters of this state voted for this proposition," he added. "It's really the will of the people to move forward on this."

The first set of grants, announced Friday, was distributed among 16 California institutions, and designed to create a 3-year stem cell training program for predoctoral, postdoctoral, and clinical fellows.

However, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, is currently fighting legal challenges to the constitutionality of the referendum. As a result of these ongoing imbroglios, CIRM has been unable to collect the $3 billion that voters authorized last November.

Instead, the CIRM announced that it will generate funds via bond anticipation notes, a type of bridge financing, to be purchased by philanthropic groups and individuals. According to the Associated Press, the agency is currently living off of a $3 million loan from the state and a donation from Ray Dolby, sound pioneer, but this money will likely run out by May.

Stuart Orkin, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute researcher and cochair of the committee that reviewed the grant applications, told The Scientist that committee members did not consider where the money was coming from when awarding grants, and some likely didn't even know about the ongoing legal battles.

UCSB's Clegg noted that awarding grants early lets institutions get ready ahead of time, so that when the money's available, everyone's ready to go. However, Jesse Reynolds of the Center for Genetics and Society, a group that supports public funding for embryonic stem cell research but opposes some of the details in the law authorizing the research in California, told The Scientist that awarding money before it's available could be a mistake.

For instance, institutions may start spending their grant money before they get it, Reynolds said. And if the CIRM gets some of the money but not all, it may have to go through the selection process once more, to decide who gets what they asked for, he noted. The Center for Genetics and Society has also accused CIRM members of having business connections with companies involved in stem cell research, but is not involved in the legal battles against CIRM.

However, Clegg said he remains optimistic that all grant recipients will eventually get their money, hopefully after minimal delays. "We can't write checks yet," he said. "I just hope it doesn't get tied up in the courts forever."

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