Californian gold for stem cells

California continues to be a golden state for stem cell researchers.

Last night the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state stem cell agency, announced more than $250m worth of grants for 14 new projects. That included a $35m contribution from Canada’s Cancer Stem Cell Consortium and $8m (£5m) from the UK Medical Research Council for international collaborations.

Until now CIRM has focused on funding basic research and infrastructure. The new grants, in contrast, are for projects expected to start clinical trials within four years.

Just four of the projects involve human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), the most versatile – and controversial – type of stem cells. A fifth will use induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs, embryo-like cells made by treating the patient’s own skin cells with genes and chemicals.

Only one company is leading a project: Novocell plans to generate insulin-producing cells from hESCs, to implant into people with Type 1 diabetes.

All the other projects are led by universities – particularly University of California campuses and Stanford.

Two projects have British participation. Peter Coffey of University College London is working with the University of Southern California to treat age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness among the elderly, with retinal cells derived from hESCs.

Paresh Vyas of Oxford University is collaborating with Irving Weissman of Stanford on a quite different type of project. They plan to make antibodies that target leukaemia stem cells. Cancer stem cells, which are believed to give rise to tumours, have recently become a very popular subject for medical research.

“Scientists have talked for years about the need to find ways to speed the pace of discovery,” said Alan Trounson, CIRM’s Australian president. “By encouraging applicants to form teams composed of the best researchers from around the world we think CIRM will set a new standard for how translational research should be funded.”

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Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.

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