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Obama's stem cell order boosts Novato's Buck Center


For a Marin County biomedical center pursuing cures for Parkinson?s, Alzheimer?s and other diseases, President Barack Obama?s abolition Monday of restraints on federal funding of stem cell research could work in tandem with his efforts to revive the national economy.

The Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato will apply for $20.5 million in federal economic stimulus funds to pay for half of a new laboratory building devoted primarily to stem cell research, said James Kovach, president and chief operating officer of the independent nonprofit organization.

The stimulus money would match a $20.5 million state grant awarded last year for the proposed 65,708-square-foot addition to Buck?s hillside campus on the west side of Highway 101.

?There?s no proposal in the country more shovel-ready than ours,? Kovach said, using the terminology for construction projects that can quickly translate into jobs. Building the $41 million lab would create 100 construction jobs for about 18 months, and the completed facility would employ 100 additional scientists, Kovach said.

The stimulus package includes $400 million for the National Institute of Health?s research facilities construction program, Kovach said. An NIH Web site said that $1 billion had been earmarked for facilities construction and renovation, but that branch of the agency could not be reached for comment Monday.

Kovach said there will be tough competition for stimulus funding, but that the Buck proposal matches NIH criteria for such projects.

Obama on Monday fulfilled his intention, reported late last week, to rescind former President George W. Bush?s 2001 order limiting stem cell research to 21 lines of stem cells existing at that time.

In opening up research using newer stem cells that many scientists say are more viable, Obama described his decision as an effort to end the Bush era ?war on science.?

?Promoting science isn?t just about providing resources,? Obama said in the East Room of the White House. ?It is about letting scientists ... do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion,? he said.

Mahendra Rao, a stem cell scientist who joined Buck in 2007 as a part-time faculty member, called the president?s action ?a big step forward.?

?The timing couldn?t have been better,? Rao said, referring to the stimulus package and the opportunity to apply it to stem cell research.

Rao resigned his post as NIH stem cell chief in 2005, protesting the Bush policy. ?I do hope that I made a contribution,? Rao said.

Noting that he quit a prestigious scientific post, Rao joked that timing of the policy change was poor for him personally. ?I wish it had happened four years earlier,? he said in a telephone interview.

Stem cell research critics on Monday reiterated their opposition, asserting that it has yielded no results. ?Where are our cures, our therapies?? said Carol Hogan of the California Catholic Conference, which represents the state?s Roman Catholic bishops.

Work with non-embryonic stem cells, in contrast, has been fruitful, she said. The Catholic Church opposes scientific use of cells from human embryos because ?it is destroying human life,? Hogan said.

?The action by the president today will, in effect, allow scientists to create their own guidelines without proper moral restraints,? Family Research Council President Tony Perkins told the Associated Press.

A Gallup Poll last month found that 52 percent of adults favored no restrictions or easing restrictions on government funding of stem cell research.

Rao said the old stem cell lines accommodated by the Bush policy are degraded by age. ?For therapeutic use you want the most pristine quality,? he said.

His research at Buck includes a potential cure for Parkinson?s disease, which afflicts 1.5 million Americans. Other faculty members are applying stem cells to Alzheimer?s disease, a debilitating condition that affects 4.5 million people.

Buck?s $20.5 million grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is part of the more than $693 million awarded by the state for stem cell research. California voters approved the $3 billion grant program in 2004.

Buck officials said the slumping economy had made it difficult to obtain the required $20.5 million match from donors, loans or bonds.

But continued state funding will help California attract federal funds, Kovach said. ?The federal government likes to leverage its funds,? he said.

Press Democrat wire services contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com