Canada could benefit from $3-billion California bond issue for stem cell research

Guest Contributor
February 26, 2007

First $45 million in awards announced

Canada's chances of moving forward with collaborative research in the area of stem cell research and regenerative medicine improved significantly with the announcement of the first awards by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The awards are the latest salvo in a bitter legal battle between the state government and organizations funded by the religious right. Court wrangling has tied up a US$3-billion bond issue for stem cell research approved by a 59% margin in a 2004 referendum — known as the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act or Proposition 71.

The new awards were made through a $150-million loan from state's general fund — a move taken by governor Arnold Schwarzenegger while the bond issue moves through the courts. They were approved by the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee, CIRM's governing board, releasing 72 grants worth $45 million. Another $80 million in larger grants are slated for approval in March with more to come by the summer. Last April, CIRM awarded $12.1 million in training grants to 16 institutions.

California took the unprecedented step of seeking voter approval for embryonic stem cell research following a 2001 decision by president George Bush to limit federal funding of research to a small number of existing stem cell lines. Last year, the bipartisan Castle-DeGette Congressional Bill to lift funding restrictions on human embryonic stem cell (hES) research received Bush's first presidential veto, prompting Schwarz-enegger to issue the state loan.

ccsip could benefit

Schwarzenegger is also a major supporter of the proposed Canada-California Strategic Innovation Partnership (CCSIP) which has identified stem cell research as one of several areas where Canadian and Californian researchers can collaborate and drive discoveries into the marketplace (R$, October 18 & December 20/06). The CCSIP's stem cell working group has identified cancer stem cells as an initial focus for potential collaboration and met again late last month to develop areas for collaborative research. Schwarzenegger is slated to visit Canada in May and CCSIP will almost certainly be on his agenda.

CIRM is one of several California partners in CCSIP and if it ultimately proves successful in its court battle, funding for bilateral research collaboration will be increased.

CIRM president, Dr Zach Hall, is a member of the CCSIP stem cell working group. He recently outlined the scientific and funding situation for stem cell research in California at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in San Francisco. He says international collaboration is definitely part of CIRM's overall strategy and welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with Canadian researchers.

"There would be a joint proposal that would be presented to us," says Hall. "Then the proposal is judged either in a competitive sense or otherwise and then the funding — if it's good science — would come after that ... Cancer stem cells is a field of strength for Canada and California is also strong."

One of Canada's major trump cards in stem cell research is Aggregate Therapeutics Inc (ATI), an affiliate company representing the vast majority of stem cell researchers in Canada under a common intellectual property (IP) protocol (R$, July 28/06). Hall says he is "very intrigued" by the ATI model although he questions whether it could work with California's universities and research institutes.

"The tradition is very strong here that institutions handle their own IP. The problem is that it takes so much time and energy to make these things happen and we have been totally consumed with trying to get this project going," he says. "Maybe somebody will address it once we get our feet under us. We need to get our funding assured."

In the legal battles over Proposition 71 funding, CIRM and the state have won three lawsuits launched by the likes of National Association for the Advancement of Preborn Children and Life Legal Defense Foundation. Hall says it could be late this year before all appeals have been exhausted and the bulk of the 10-year funding commitment comes on stream.

"The CIRM has a comprehensive scientific plan ready for when the bond issues become available," he says.


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