Rich Donors Help Calif. Fund Stem Cell Research

By Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 19, 2006

LOS ANGELES -- Two years after California voters passed a landmark $3 billion bond measure for stem cell research, not a single bond has been sold and not a penny of bond money has been spent. The fund is caught up in court challenges.

But remarkably, the private sector has stepped in to fill the gap with almost unprecedented contributions to state government.

This fall, affluent Californians gave $31 million to the state agency that doles out grants for stem cell research, allowing it to begin functioning. Private money is also building new stem cell labs on university campuses across the state. Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad gave $25 million to the University of Southern California for a stem cell institute, sound-technology pioneer Ray Dolby gave $16 million to the University of California at San Francisco, and local donors are contributing to a $75 million expansion at the University of California at Davis.

"I was amazed by the number of wealthy Californians who have stepped up and decided to support a public agency," said Owen Witte, director of the new Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles. "I've never heard of anything like this."

The private donations are tiny compared with the state bond measure's pot-of-gold promise of $300 million a year for 10 years. But they dwarf annual National Institutes of Health spending on human embryonic stem cell research, which totaled $40 million last year.

Federal dollars may be spent only for research on the few stem cell lines obtained from embryos that were destroyed by Aug. 9, 2001. The federal government also funds research on stem cells that come from adults, but scientists prize embryonic stem cells' ability to transform into any type of cell in the body, including blood, organs and bones. In July, President Bush vetoed a bill to broaden federal funding, but the Senate Democratic leadership has indicated it will try to pass such a bill again.

The private largess has allowed the state's stem cell agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, to begin operating and has triggered a wave of private giving for stem cell research across the country.

"The proposition being passed [in California] had an impact that magnified out of proportion to the dollars, even though the dollar amounts were quite extraordinary," said John Kessler, professor of neurology at Northwestern University and head of the school's stem cell research center.

The proposition made "a lot of people all over the country sit up and take notice, and say, 'Wait a minute. California's doing this -- what are we doing here? If stem cells are really that important, we should be doing something in New York, we should be doing something in Baltimore, about making sure our scientific communities can remain competitive,' " Kessler said.

Early this year, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg quietly donated $100 million to Johns Hopkins University, largely for stem cell research. Harvard, Cornell and Columbia universities are using private money to bolster their stem cell labs. State governments in Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, Wisconsin, Connecticut and New Mexico have also put money into stem cell research.

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, eager to get the state stem cell bonds afloat, recently loaned the stem cell agency $150 million from the state's general fund that will be repaid only if the lawsuits fail. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine will award $24 million in training grants for stem cell scientists and $80 million in research grants next year.

Most legal experts believe it is only a matter of months before the lawsuits tying up California's bonds, filed by a taxpayer group and a Christian organization, fail. A Northern California judge issued a strongly worded ruling against the groups in April, but they are appealing.

"We act like women are just some commodity that are there to donate their eggs to science. It's ridiculous," said Susan Spann, one of the attorneys suing the state of California to block the stem cell bond sales. "If they want to do stem cell research, let them fund it privately. Why involve taxpayers in their agenda? Let Dolby fund it, or whoever."

Dale Carlson, spokesman for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, called recent developments ironic. "The strategy of the folks that are opposing [stem cell research] -- the folks that are suing us, for example -- is to starve the research for stem cells, especially human embryonic stem cells. Instead, the amount of private money that's going into stem cell research is breathtaking," he said.

In the meantime, California scientists are preparing to spend their windfall.

One recent afternoon, design drawings for a new lab building were piled neatly on the coffee table in Witte's office at UCLA.

"There's a definite feeling that California is the place you want to be to do stem cell research," Witte said. "From the number of letters of recommendation I get asked to write and phone calls I get, my sense is that every institution in California is hiring" stem cell researchers. His group has hired five new faculty members in the past 18 months and plans to hire seven more.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company