Fueled by $3 Billion in State Funds, Science Centers Are Opening High-Tech Labs Aimed at Fostering Medical Breakthroughs. Bay Area universities and research groups are betting they can spawn a new generation of medical breakthroughs and the next growth engine for the region's biotechnology industry.
The University of California, San Francisco, later this year plans to open a $123 million stem-cell lab at the foot of Mt. Sutro. The building follows the March launch of the UC Davis's new stem-cell center. Not to be outdone, Stanford University this month is expected to complete a $200 million stem-cell facility.
These are the biggest Greater Bay Area beneficiaries so far of Proposition 71, the 2004 ballot initiative that approved $3 billion in general obligation bonds to be spent over 10 years on stem-cell research in California. While the initiative—an end-run around the Bush administration's now-lifted ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research—was initially held up as religious groups and others fought to stop it in the courts, the bond issue got under way and has pumped more than $1 billion into California universities and research groups.
The state's support in turn attracted private donations from California philanthropists. Stanford's building, for instance, was helped by a $75 million contribution from Lorry Lokey, founder of news release service Business Wire Inc.
All of this has helped the Bay Area rev up its stem-cell research. Of the nine California research centers expected to open this year, Stanford and UCSF are two of the largest. Others include a group of San Diego institutes and universities, UC Irvine and the University of Southern California. Meanwhile, UC Berkeley received $20 million from the state, while the Novato-based Buck Institute for Age Research is adding a stem-cell research program to its work. The California centers compete for top scientists with other stem-cell research facilities around the world, including Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The effects of the funding are rippling out to Bay Area contractors who are being used on the construction of the new facilities. Over time, the work could yield a host of new jobs researchers and other medical specialists.
"The Bay Area was already the global capital of biotech," says Jesse Reynolds, a policy analyst at the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley. "Proposition 71 re-enforced that."
Stem cells are the building blocks of the body's tissues and organs and so can be used to repair the body. Scientists hope that they might provide a path to therapies for diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's and other diseases. Researchers' first hurdle—and the focus of much of the current research—is to establish that the cells can be safely introduced into humans. If that is achieved, it could clear the way for a range of human trials.
The stem-cell scientists will move into a new, $123 million research laboratory after it is completed later this year
Still, it is a gamble that the state's money will spark the kind of advances that stem-cell proponents predict. Many scientists believe the cells will bring about medical advances that could involve tailoring drugs to individuals, but there is no guarantee the cells can become a silver bullet for specific diseases.
"There are some remarkable projects being started throughout the state," says Lawrence Goldstein, a professor and stem-cell researcher at the University of California, San Diego. "Some will fail."
Some critics question the prudence of using state resources to fund long-term research when California is mired in a $19 billion deficit. "Publicly funded scientific research is a form of stimulus spending, but it's unclear if it is the most effective one," says Mr. Reynolds, the policy analyst.
At UCSF, $35 million from the state and $25 million from billionaire Eli Broad and $16 million from Ray and Dagmar Dolby covered a large chunk of the new building, with the rest coming from other donations. Gordon and Betty Moore also gave UCSF $8.4 million toward equipment for the building.
Tucked behind the university's Parnassus campus, the 660-foot-long building is set on 85-foot-long metal pilings on roller bearings, part of an undercarriage designed to absorb the sway of an earthquake.
Last month, the building's first outside visitors—mainly stem-cell researchers—toured the facility, which is divided into four "pods," each with gray lab benches and windows that look onto the eucalyptus trees that cover Mt. Sutro. The building's roof will be covered by local vegetation.
The center is designed to house 25 lead scientists—called principal investigators—who will work with teams of an average of 12 members each. The facility builds on an already-broad set of stem-cell-related work at UCSF, which is the home of some early progress in the field.
The building is partly a recruiting tool. University officials said that one scientist they are trying to hire was on the tour that day, though they declined to say who the person was.
"The list of what is possible in terms of changing medicine, changing outcomes is only limited, frankly, by the talent," says UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann. "It really comes down to a faculty member: Do I want to come to UCSF? Do I want to stay at UCSF?"
The gold standard is Shinya Yamanaka. A perennial favorite to win a Nobel Prize, the Japanese neuroscientist is credited by many peers with the biggest breakthrough of the past decade in stem-cell research, a method of giving adult cells the properties of an embryonic stem cell. The discovery sidesteps the ethical issues of destroying human embryos to obtain stem cells.
He made his breakthrough in Japan but since 2007, Dr. Yamanaka, 47 years old, has worked part-time in San Francisco at a lab affiliated with UCSF with a team of eight researchers. Researchers hope the discovery could move the world closer to "regenerative" medicine, in which a person's own cells can be manipulated to repair damage from a disease.
So far, the researchers have succeeded in using Dr. Yamanaka's technique to turn skin cells into pulsating heart cells. "It's like science fiction," says Deepak Srivastava, director of the J. David Gladstone Institute for Cardiovascular Disease, the UCSF affiliate where the work is being done.