Where Stem Cells Stand


By Dan Gordon '85, Illustrations by Jeffrey DeCoster

Published Jan 1, 2006 12:00 AM

To politicians and activists, human embryonic stem cell research is a political flashpoint, with the federal government all but banning it and states battling to pick up the slack and fund their own homegrown stem cell research centers.

To scientists, it is a moral touch point whose potential to fight cancer, Alzheimer's and a host of other terrible afflictions is tempered by profound ethical questions.

And to patients, particularly very religious ones, the hope held out by stem cell research often clashes with spiritual beliefs.

But even as the sociocultural storm swirls over stem cells, research forges ahead. California is in the vanguard. And in that effort, UCLA is both a framer of the ethical debate and a primary player in the science.

"We now have a remarkable opportunity in biomedical research to utilize new technologies to come up with ways of treating human disease that we previously couldn't fathom," explains Owen Witte, director of UCLA's newly formed Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine.

California laid the foundation in November 2004, when 59% of voters approved Proposition 71, providing $3 billion in bond funding to create the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a new state agency designed to regulate human embryonic stem cell research and provide funding through grants and loans for stem cell science at institutions across the state. That decision put California squarely at the forefront of national stem cell research efforts, but experts in adult human stem cells and in mouse embryonic stem cells have been active in Westwood for years.

At UCLA, bone marrow-derived stem cells have been used to reconstitute cancer patients' blood systems after high levels of chemotherapy or radiation since the 1960s, in the form of bone marrow transplants. More recently, researchers at UCLA have explored the idea that transplanted stem cells derived from the fat taken in liposuction procedures can help treat patients with narrowed, blocked arteries and weakened cardiac muscle.

Last March, the university established the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine, a campuswide effort bringing together geneticists, engineers, ethicists, chemists, policy experts, pathologists, immunologists, oncologists, hematologists and scientists from other disciplines.

Chancellor Albert Carnesale said at the time that the institute "will enable us to continue fostering such interdisciplinary collaborations and to build upon the existing body of knowledge for the benefit of people worldwide." And he announced that UCLA would provide $20 million over five years to launch the campuswide institute. The money will be used to pay for recruitment of a dozen new faculty positions, salaries and expansion of highly sophisticated laboratory space, infrastructure and supplies - the "critical mass" without which the university could not effectively compete with other centers for research funding.