State Stem Cell Grants Awarded to Four San Diego Biotechs

Xconomy San Diego — 

Venture funding for San Diego’s life science companies seems to have slowed to a trickle, but four local biotechs are among the first companies to get grants from California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell institute.

The 29-member governing board for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine voted Wednesday to approve funding of more than $19.8 million for 23 grant proposals. The grants ranged from $700,000 to $1.1 million, with 17 going to fund research at academic, non-profit laboratories and six designated for California biotech companies.

The institute was established in early 2005 following the passage of a state ballot measure to provide $3 billion to fund stem cell research. California voters passed proposition 71 in 2004, after the Bush Administration dramatically curbed federal funding for stem cell research.

Since then, the institute has distributed more than $614 million in 229 grants. But until now only one of those grants went to a biotech company—a $50,000 grant for San Diego-based Novocell.

As institute president Alan Trounson said in a prepared statement Wednesday, “These awards represent the entry of the biotechnology industry into CIRM-funded initiatives to accelerate progress.”

The grants approved and the San Diego biotechs receiving them were:

—$827,072 for Novocell to advance development of “an implantable device” to capture and retain pancreatic stem cells. Novocell researchers have already implanted the device, a semi-permeable pouch, into animals and collected pancreas stem cells, which develop into mature cells that produce insulin.

—$749,520 for a joint effort by Fluidigm of South San Francisco and StemGent, a Cambridge, MA, biotech with operations in San Diego, to develop a screening technology to help stem cell researchers “reverse engineer” skin cells into stem cells. The technique would enable researchers to work with stem cells in a way that avoids ethical objections and technical barriers to using embryonic stem cells.

—$869,262 for an application by Invitrogen, now known as Life Technologies, for developing methods of modelling human neurodegenerative diseases in human embryonic stem cells. Researchers plan to focus their work on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

—$906,629 for Vala Sciences to develop new and improved techniques for developing mature heart cells called cardiomyocyte cells from human embryonic stem cells.

In a related move, the institute’s 29-member governing body agreed to accelerate funding for commercial entities to provide “greater financial stability” for California’s biotechnology sector, which “faces significant challenges arising from the credit crisis and economic downturn.”

The accelerated funding program enables biotechs with applications that are recommended by the institute’s scientific working group to immediately get the first payment of their grant or loan upon approval by the institute’s governing board.

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