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San Diego institutions recipients of more than $120 million in CIRM funds

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On the surface, fruit flies don't appear to have a lot to do with stem cell research. But Dr. Leanne Jones of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies thought she could learn a lot about the complex human system by studying the more basic structures of the tiny winged insects.

Her work, she said, is paying off. And she probably wouldn't have been able to get started without a grant from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

"I got what's called an Investigator Award, and for those you're encouraged to submit risky ideas," Jones said. She explained that when scientists apply for grants from sources like the National Institute of Health, they are asked to show that their work will have a more direct bearing on a certain topic, and that they will get results. The CIRM process allows scientists to look at a problem from a multitude of angles.

"It's nice that the people reviewing the grants could appreciate that," she said.

Established in 2005 after voters approved a statewide ballot proposal, CIRM was created to grant about $3 billion for stem cell research around the state. The grants go to private and public institutions, and are put toward infrastructure needs as well as clinical research.

More than $120 million of the $614 million awarded so far has gone toward San Diego institutions, according to information on the CIRM Web site. The University of California, San Diego (UCSD) has received the most of any institution, with more than $32 million in funding. Salk, The Burnham Institute for Medical Research, The Scripps Research Institute, San Diego State University and others have received grants as well.

The single biggest grant to San Diego did not go to a specific research institution, however, but toward the creation of a new one. A grant for $43 million grant went toward the construction of the San Diego Consortium for Regenerative Medicine's stem cell research facility.

Scheduled to open next year on land donated by UCSD, the consortium will bring researchers from different institutions together to share research, knowledge and grant money.

Joe Panetta, the chief executive officer of the local trade group Biocom, said he expects research to really take off once the consortium's facility is built.

"Stem cell research of course is still in its infant stages, so a lot of the grants are going to very basic studies that don't fulfill the kind of promises predicted when it was first presented, in terms of therapies," said Panetta. "What CIRM has done is to continue to keep the caliber of research and researchers (here)."

Once the consortium's facility is built, Panetta said, all those researchers who stayed in California, and San Diego especially, will have place to make even more significant discoveries.

"The consortium will put together much more sophisticated, much more competitive grant proposals," Panetta said. "I know a lot of people around the state are jealous of us for that."

According to Don Gibbons, a spokesman for CIRM, the next round of funding is scheduled for later this year. The institute puts out requests for application (RFA) asking for research on various disease models and different criteria, and researchers submit proposals. A board of scientists from outside California decides who wins the grants.

Jones, the researcher with Salk, said she has noticed more and more scientists willing to come to or collaborate with California institutions to do research since the CIRM grants began panning out, something she said can only help with medical progress.

"I think it's been fantastic," she said. "It's changing the way people are thinking about doing science."

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