Stanford awarded stem cell grant

Funding to begin training a cadre of scholars in adult and embryonic stem cell research was awarded Sept. 9 to the School of Medicine, when the state agency that oversees stem cell research announced its first set of grants.

The $3.7 million award to Stanford will help to support 16 graduate and post-graduate scientists who have expressed an interest in pursuing stem cell research. This is in addition to nine scholars who are already receiving funding through the National Institutes of Health for training in regenerative medicine.

All 25 of the Stanford trainees will draw on the expertise of faculty members in subjects as diverse as law, ethics and human disease processes, said Michael Longaker, MD, professor of medicine and chair of the advisory committee for Stanford's Program in Regenerative Medicine.

"It is particularly gratifying to be able to link the incredible depth and breadth of talent at Stanford," Longaker said. "We want stem cell biology and regenerative medicine to be a catalyst for collaborations between faculty and trainees in all the schools. This exciting educational environment should help propel Stanford to a leadership role in regenerative medicine."

The grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine will provide roughly $1.2 million per year for three years to support the career development of six graduate students, five postdoctoral fellows and five research fellows. These CIRM scholars will be culled from departments across campus including those in the medical school, engineering and the humanities.

"We wrote the grant so that each CIRM scholar would have a mentor and a co-mentor working in complementary fields," Longaker said.

Questions remain, though, as to when the state funds will be available. CIRM, the agency overseeing the stem cell research initiative approved by voters last November, planned to sell bonds to generate $3 billion in research funds over the next 10 years. But lawsuits have thrown those plans into question. CIRM officials have said they are approaching private philanthropic organizations to loan the agency funds that would eventually be repaid when the legal matters are resolved.

Despite the questions over the sale of the bonds, CIRM officials on Friday awarded grants to 16 institutions including Stanford that will provide $12.5 million a year for three years. The money will help train 170 scholars statewide.

As soon as Stanford receives its funding, Longaker said school officials will put out a call for applications from potential trainees.

In the meantime, Margaret Fuller, PhD, professor and chair of developmental biology and a co-author of Stanford's grant proposal, said Stanford will begin holding a weekly seminar for all faculty members and students interested in regenerative medicine. The initial meeting is set for 4 p.m. Oct. 6 in the Clark Center.

"This grant will be a major stimulus to bring stem cell researchers together across disciplines and across schools at Stanford," Fuller said.

Philip Pizzo, MD, dean of the School of Medicine and a member of CIRM's Independent Citizens' Oversight Committee, attended the Sept. 9 meeting but recused himself from voting on Stanford's grant. He expressed frustration that the grantees can't yet move forward with their work.

"We've got some wonderful opportunities to create outstanding leaders of the future in regenerative medicine, but because of the litigation the funds aren't available," Pizzo said. "We're losing time and we're losing opportunities. But we will work hard to do everything in our power to fulfill the expectations of the voters by conducting the best research and training the best leaders."