California’s stem cell agency ponders its future

Posted: March 19, 2012 at 4:12 am

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.

Last December, CIRM's former chairman, Robert Klein, who used his fortune and political connections to create Prop 71, floated the possibility of another referendum.

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.

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California's stem cell agency ponders its future

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