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BIO 2008

California a stem cell leader, for now

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California is at the forefront of stem cell research, and it sure wants everyone to know it.

Hosting an enormous international delegation of life science specialists and investor with the Biotech International Convention (BIO) in town this week, California’s companies, universities and even its famous governor took care to expound on the state’s virtues when it comes to the cutting edge science of stem cells.

But California is not alone in that field. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick spoke at the event Tuesday about his recent signing of a law that will grant $1 billion in state funds to foster biotechnology in his state, including stem cell research. And beyond that, Europe is making strides on the research as well.

“There is significant potential for stem cell therapy,” said Frederic Chereau, a French national who works for Genzyme. “It's still in the early stage, but more and more promising work is being done.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger addressed the Biotech International Conference in San Diego Wednesday. Schwarzenegger used his speech as an opportunity to celebrate all the work California has done in the field, and encourage others to do business here.

France is one of about 10 European Union member states that are also working on stem cell research. Probably the most advanced country on research is the United Kingdom, site of the first stem cell bank.

California does have the advantage of its size and cohesion.

The California Institution for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) was created in 2005 after state voters approved of a plan to provide $3 billion for stem cell research at the state’s universities and institutes. CIRM provides grant funding around the state, and helps set ethical standards.

Though they’re all working separately and often in competition, having one direct source of funding that’s endorsed by the government has some level of uniting effect on California’s stem cell efforts.

In Europe, there is some disconnect. According to Michael Leader, a British national who is the director of Healthcare Council, EuropaBio, a European biotech trade organization, said the matter has so far been left up to individual states, with no overarching guidelines from EU leadership.

While about 10 EU countries allow stem cell research, others have murkier laws.

“Some of (the member states) actually haven’t made it clear if you can use them or not,” he said.

A similar situation exists in the United States, with the federal government not permitting federal funding of stem cell research.

But California is still somewhat unique even from EU states that allow and partially fund stem cell work because of CIRM.

In addition to funding existing research labs, CIRM will also help build 12 new facilities, including one in San Diego in La Jolla.

The San Diego facility, SDCIRM, is located near UC San Diego, the Salk Institute and others, and is made predominantly of glass so people from other research centers can see in, and those inside can see out.

“This is an extraordinary initiative, that’s for certain,” said Alan Trounson, the president of CIRM.

Still, in addition to Massachusetts and some European companies, other countries like India, South Korea and China are putting money into stem cell research as well.

Trounson estimated about $14 billion will go into the research in 10 years. While California may be a pacesetter right now, it could only be a matter of years before the Golden State is just running with the pack.

Trounson, however, said that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“We don’t see ourselves as isolated from the rest of the world,” he said. “We think that we’ll end up in a leadership position because $300 million a year is really going to drive a very major initiative.”

Send your comments to Elizabeth.Malloy@sddt.com

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