Friday, December 02, 2005

Stem cell agency in California hassles court to dismiss lawsuits

Eager to progress with its stem cell project, the newly implemented California Institute of Regenerative Medicine pleaded with a judge to dismiss lawsuits that have impeded it from borrowing $3 billion to be used to fund research grants. Newly created by Proposition 71, the stem cell institute has been hindered by two lawsuits that have challenged its constitutionality and intimidated potential leaders. Filed by politically conservative groups, these lawsuits have delayed the agency’s work, according to deputy attorney general Tamar Pachter. For example, rising interest rates since the agency was first prepared to borrow have cost the state an estimated $15 million. The lawsuits question the authority and intentions of the agency’s managers, many of whom, they allege, are not state officials but employees with individual agendas. The agendas of the filers of such lawsuits have been questioned as well. One of the filers, the People's Advocate and the National Tax Limitation Foundation, which opposes abortion and the “right-to-die,” has admitted its disapproval of stem cell research, but claims its motivations are moral, not religious. The group maintains that only state officials should be able to dole out public funds.

The second lawsuit was filed by a newly created nonprofit called the California Family Bioethics Council, self-described as a “stem cell research watchdog group.” Bioethics lawyer David Llewellyn claims that the selection process, whereby elected officials and college administrators select members of the institute's Independent Citizens Oversight Committee, creates a “conflict of interest.” Human embryonic stem cells are created in the first days after conception and give rise to all the organs and tissues in the human body. Scientists hope to someday use stem cells to replacement diseased tissue. Such prospects anger many social conservatives, including President Bush, because embryos are destroyed during research. President Bush’s 2001 restriction on the use of federal money to fund stem cell work has kept the field infantile, according to scientists.

The pending litigation discourages potential leaders, fearful of the potential futility of their investments. The agency has been kept afloat and has opened a permanent headquarters thanks to a $5 million charitable donation from sound pioneer Ray Dolby and a $3 million loan from the state. Even though it has little money, the agency in September awarded 16 grants totaling $39.7 million to universities and nonprofit medical organizations in California. Rulings on the lawsuits are expected at a later date.

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