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Stem Cells on the Move

27 February 2007 (All day)
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California supporters of stem cell research are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Yesterday, the California Court of Appeal in San Francisco rejected a lawsuit that has been delaying full operations at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). Although the case could still make its way to the state supreme court, CIRM proponents are confident the institute has overcome is last major legal hurdle.

The creation of CIRM was approved by voters in November 2004 as a way to get around federally imposed limits on research with human embryonic stem (ES) cells (ScienceNOW, 6 October 2006). Under the auspices of Proposition 71, the institute was designed to be funded by the public sale of $3 billion in bonds. However, consumer and taxpayer groups who oppose the destruction of human embryos for research quickly brought suits to block the operation. Among the plaintiffs' charges were that university officials sitting on the oversight committee had conflicts of interest; that the wording of the original ballot measure was misleading to voters; and that CIRM itself is unconstitutional--even though Proposition 71 was passed as an amendment to the state constitution--because it is not under the "exclusive management and control of the state."

The litigation has so far delayed the issuance of stem cell research bonds by more than 2 years. But thanks to individual gifts and a $150 million state loan, CIRM gave out its first $45 million in research grants last month and plans to dole out an additional $80 million in mid-March--"making us the leading funder of embryonic stem cell research in the world," said CIRM board chair Robert Klein at a press conference today in San Francisco.

That role should only expand thanks to the San Francisco court ruling. In a 55-page decision, the three-judge panel stated, "We have no hesitation in concluding ... that Proposition 71 suffers from no constitutional or other legal infirmity." The decision upholds a lower court ruling made last April. The judges batted down all the plaintiffs' arguments, for example defending CIRM's conflict-of-interest provisions as "rigorous."

The plaintiffs are still expected to appeal to the state supreme court, but Klein is optimistic that the litigation will be completely over by the end of the year and that bond sales will start soon. "This [lawsuit] did us a great favor in that they sued us on everything you could imagine, and the court meticulously went through and rejected [everything]," he said. "That eliminates a lot of potential lawsuits." State Attorney General Jerry Brown agreed, calling the decision "a solid green light to proceed."

There was good news for stem cell research across the Atlantic, too: yesterday, the Times of London reported that U.K. government officials have shelved attempts to ban fusing human DNA with animal eggs in order to study genetically caused human diseases. In a White Paper last December, the Department of Health argued for a moratorium on the practice because of ethical and aesthetic objections to mixing human and animal material. Last month, a number of scientists reacted vigorously against the proposal, stressing the need for such research because acquiring human eggs is difficult, and some scientists have qualms about asking women to donate them. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is now proceeding with a public "consultation," announced in January, about policies on the technique.

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