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California moving ahead with stem-cell plans

California is moving forward on its stem-cell research program approved by voters this month even as the United States leads a campaign at the United Nations to ban all research.
/ Source: Reuters

California is moving quickly to launch a $3 billion stem-cell research program approved by voters this month even as the United States is leading a campaign at the United Nations to ban all cloning of human embryos, including for stem-cell studies.

California’s proposition 71, approved in the Nov. 2 election, calls for the state to fund $300 million a year in stem-cell research over 10 years. Last week the state began appointing members of an oversight panel and it has started evaluating plans for new labs and research sites.

Researchers hope to cure diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer’s by using stem cells, master cells which are used to generate new blood and tissue. They can come from a variety of sources, but those taken from days-old human embryos seem to have the most flexibility, although scientists agree much more research is needed.

Although a U.N. ban on research would be unlikely to halt California’s efforts, it could stifle international cooperation with U.S. scientists, research advocates said.

“We are very concerned with U.S. pressure to try to ban international work in stem-cell research,” said Robert Klein, a wealthy real estate developer and author of proposition 71 which was backed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“It would be unfortunate if the U.N. took that position, but it’s not enforceable in California as I understand it,” said John Doerr, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and a supporter of the research.

The United States and Costa Rica have put put forward a plan at the United Nations for a treaty that would ban cloning human embryos for stem cell or similar research -- known as "therapeutic cloning” — as well as the cloning of human beings.

Opponents have suggested instead a declaration of principle leaving policy decisions on research to individual governments.

Search for compromise
At the United Nations, the two sides have had talks in search of a compromise but no agreement has been reached yet. A General Assembly committee has scheduled a vote for Friday.

In 2001, President Bush ordered restrictions on federal funding for studies involving stem cells removed from human embryos, citing ethical concerns. Federal spending for the research is about $25 million a year.

The federal curbs force California labs not to mix the state’s research with any programs, facilities and equipment funded by the National Institutes of Health, the main federal center for health research.

After the restrictions were imposed, the University of California-San Francisco, one of the nation’s top biomedical centers, established a small off-campus lab with no federal funding to work on new cell lines.

Now UC-San Francisco is considering building a larger center financed by the California program, a spokeswoman said. UC-Berkeley also is planning a research center.

Academic researchers typically would prefer an NIH system for continued funding of their work and support for a broad field of study, scientists said.

The California program instead will establish the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, dubbed a "mini-NIH" by researchers. The center will finance labs and award grants.