A New Stem Cell Blueprint

California's schemes for funding human embryonic stem (ES) cell research took a step forward on 4 October, as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) unveiled a draft 149-page "strategic plan" for the next 10 years. The blueprint posits modest progress and predicts that ES-cell based therapies won't reach clinical trials for at least a decade.

CIRM was formed almost two years ago after voters approved Proposition 71. It allows for bond sales to raise $3 billion so California scientists can conduct ES cell research free from constraints imposed by federal funding policy. CIRM continues to move forward despite lawsuits challenging its constitutionality that are delaying the sale of bonds. In August, thanks to a state loan of $150 million, the institute opened the competition for its first 45 research grants to California scientists. There is apparently hot competition--Arnold Kriegstein, head of the Stem Cell Institute at the University of California, San Francisco, says CIRM may get as many as 41 grant applications from UCSF alone.

CIRM's goals for 10 years from now include generating "clinical proof of principle" that a therapy developed from human ES cells is able to "restore function for at least one disease." In addition, clinical trials for "2-4 additional diseases" should be in progress. And CIRM wants disease-specific cell lines for 20 to 30 diseases available for study. Of the $3 billion, $1.6 billion is slated for research, from basic science to clinical trials. The plan also designates $295 million for training and $273 million for construction of research facilities--needed to keep the work segregated from that funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The construction figure is "a very modest number" considering how many California institutions are doing this kind of research, says Kriegstein.

Despite all the hope pinned on ES cells in medicine, the CIRM plan has garnered generally good reviews for modest goals. They're "sensible, well-reasoned, realistic, and achievable," says stem cell researcher Evan Snyder of the Burnham Institute in San Diego. But Robert Lanza, whose company Advanced Cell Technology recently moved its headquarters to Alameda, was hoping for more. He says he's a "bit disappointed" that CIRM isn't being "more ambitious." Low expectations "will throw cold water on enthusiasm to fund stem cell research elsewhere," he says.

The plan will be presented to CIRM's governing board, the Independent Citizens' Oversight Committee, at a 10 October meeting in San Francisco. The final version is slated to be adopted on 7 December.

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