By Jeanne Loring
“Shared Labs Axed” was the headline for David Jensen’s blog about the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the funding agency founded after voters approved Proposition 71, the “stem cell research and cures” initiative.
I was there when the ax fell, in Los Angeles at the meeting of CIRM’s governing board, along with 11 of my CIRM-funded research colleagues from all over California. These dozen researchers came to try to hold back the ax; we were there to inform the board about their decision on the future of the program called “Shared Labs.”
Let me tell you a little about the Shared Labs. There are 17 of them throughout California, and they began to be funded in 2007. Each of the labs had an equipment budget to set up a human stem cell lab, and each receives $200,000 a year from CIRM for personnel who provide hands-on training, equipment maintenance, and expert advice.
The purpose of these labs is summarized in a quote from the grant description: “These dedicated, common laboratories should encourage optimal sharing among individual investigators, research groups and departments, foster a collaborative, multidisciplinary research environment, and promote cost effectiveness” (www.CIRM.ca.gov).
We all arrived at the board meeting in the morning- some drove, some flew, and some took a train; the meeting of the 29-member board (called the “ICOC”) was in the Luxe hotel on Sunset Boulevard. I often attend these meetings; I like hearing about the big picture and plans for CIRM. Sometimes they get lively, like the time that they voted to fund a grant on Huntington’s disease and the patient advocates and researchers staged a spontaneous celebration with confetti. But this time, we were to be the entertainment.
At about 3 pm, the issue of Shared Labs came up. Their funding is running out, and we wanted the board to know how essential they had become to stem cell research and development. One by one, nine of us came to the microphone during the “public comment” phase; we each got 3 minutes to explain that the shared labs were the glue that holds researchers together, which makes California uniquely powerful for development of stem cell research and cures.
We talked about how we had leveraged the small amount of CIRM funding more than 10-fold, by providing the tools required for projects funded by the NIH and philanthropists. We said that we had trained hundreds of young scientists in stem cell technologies, and that they had gone on to graduate school or gotten great jobs as skilled technicians.
We told the board that we are the face of CIRM to the voters of California, how we hold lab tours almost every week for the public and how we reach out to schools and organizations to educate the public about the value of stem cells. We are the people that the voters associate with CIRM, not the small group with offices in San Francisco.
Finally, we told the board that we had all managed to become somewhat self-sufficient, but also told them that stem cell research is not a simple technique, like caring for research mice. It’s a skilled art that needs to be taught and maintained. And we need to share our expertise with each other.
The recommendation came before we spoke. Alan Trounson, the president of CIRM, said that they had decided to save money by closing the shared labs.
After we spoke, and answered the board’s questions, his recommendation remained the same.
Only six of the 29 board members could vote on this issue; two abstained, and the other 4 supported Alan’s recommendation.
To say that we were crushed is an understatement- one of my colleagues said that the board had just ripped out the beating heart of stem cell research in California; another simply said: “CIRM is dead.”
We are back home now, but still puzzled about why CIRM would destroy one of its most successful programs. The irony is that the board would like to continue to support training. The training is done in the shared labs. There are no more courses without the shared labs.
We aren’t giving up; we’re just taking some time to think. Meanwhile, the positive side: we did an amazing thing: we are normally very competitive with each other, but on Wednesday we came together from all over California to support a single cause that is dear to our hearts. That will remain a high point for me, even though I also feel a profound sense of loss.