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Federal funding cuts have unclear effects

UCI's controversial research on stem cells also receives state, private donations.

September 06, 2010|By Joseph Serna, joseph.serna@latimes.com

While a federal judge's ruling that recently halted federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research carries implications nationwide, on the local level the effects are less clear.

At UC Irvine's Stem Cell Research Center, only a fraction of the work that goes on is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Since the Bush administration first implemented a funding ban, scientists at the center have taken the extra step of carefully dividing their research funded by the federal government from the work done through state and private donations, said Hans Keirstead, one of the center's leading researchers.

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U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth's recent ruling threw a curveball for researchers nationwide, including those at UCI, said Peter Donovan, the center's director.

"Several scientists had applied, or were about to apply, to NIH for funding on human embryonic stem cells," Donovan wrote in an e-mail. "That potential funding is all in jeopardy … now scientists are scrambling to rewrite applications to take the human embryonic stem cell part out or to propose alternative methods if they exist.

"And that slows down the pace of moving basic science discoveries from the lab bench to the bedside. It's very destabilizing for the field, discouraging and a blow to people hoping for new treatments to come from this research."

Lamberth ruled that NIH funding research with human embryonic stem cells violates a 1996 federal law that prohibits destroying human embryos.

Experts say stem cells, including those derived from days-old human embryos slated to be destroyed, hold the key to future treatments for conditions ranging from spinal cord injuries to Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's.

However, those opposed to research using human embryos believe that embryos are actually humans and that using them for research is somewhat akin to abortion.

Stem cells are essentially cells with a blank slate. They have the ability to form into whatever tissue they surround.

Keirstead is planning to conduct the first human clinical trials with stem cells on patients with spinal cord injuries. He said the ruling could steer budding scientists into other work.

"Fewer labs doing stem cell research means fewer homes for young researchers to build their careers," he said.

Donovan echoed the sentiment.

"In addition, the ruling yet again sends a signal to young scientists that this might not be a field to enter into if NIH is unable to fund research in this area," he said.

Bruce Morgan, UCI's vice chancellor of research administration, said the financial impact of the injunction at this point is negligible.

That could change depending on what guidelines NIH mandates to comply with the order, he said.

Current work being done with federal money can continue and some research projects can last up to five years with NIH funding.

That research could be halted if scientists cannot reapply when the current grant is up, Donovan said.

The judge's ruling does not affect the center's research funded by state or private monies.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, created by 2004's voter-approved Proposition 71, has given UCI's research center more than $62.4 million as of June. Figures on how much funding the center receives from NIH were not immediately available.

President Barack Obama's administration said it plans on appealing Lamberth's ruling.

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