Robert Klein, chair of California's stem cell committee, says it will begin doling out funds by May. Credit: AP Photo/Ric Francis

California's new Institute for Regenerative Medicine is forging ahead with schemes to fund scientists for human embryonic stem cell research, possibly as early as May. But a rocky start for the institute's oversight committee, which met for the first time in December, along with a laundry list of standards and procedures to resolve, may conspire against such ambitious plans.

Voted in by California's citizens in November, the institute is intended to close the funding gap left by federal restrictions on the use of US federal dollars for stem cell work (Nat. Med. 10, 882; 2004). It is charged with distributing research and facilities grants totaling about $300 million each year for the next ten years.

But in early December, state senator Deborah Ortiz, who had been a strong supporter of the initiative, introduced legislation to close what she said were gaps in accountability created by the proposition. Among the changes proposed in the bill are patient protection guidelines and making public the deliberations of the institute's working groups. The bill could be put to a vote in the next few months.

Much of the agenda for the meeting on 17 December of the institute's Independent Citizens Oversight Committee (ICOC) was scrapped after watchdog groups complained that the organizers gave inadequate notice of the meeting to the public. The committee instead limited itself to electing its chair and vice chair. Named to these posts were Robert Klein, a real estate developer from Palo Alto and campaign leader for the proposition, and Ed Penhoet, a San Francisco–based biotechnology entrepreneur.

Most of the postponed matters were taken up at a second meeting, held in Los Angeles on 6 January. At that meeting, Klein said he wants the institute to write its first checks to researchers by the end of May. That plan is in keeping with the short deadlines established by the initiative itself, all of which have been met or very nearly met.

But an array of logistical hurdles remain, not least of which is the selection of the 15-member working group of stem cell scientists that will both recommend criteria for successful grants and review the applications that come in. At the January meeting, the ICOC delegated members to begin this process.

Several research institutions—including those that lack medical centers—have already begun assembling proposals. For example, Robert Tjian, a molecular biologist at the University of California in Berkeley, says the university plans to seek support for work on stem cell differentiation and tissue engineering.

You build in the structure and the rules from the start, and that is what is happening now. Marcy Darnovsky,, Center for Genetics and Society.

Watchdog groups say they plan to monitor the institute's progress. Some of their concerns have already been resolved. For instance, Klein agreed in January to avoid holding an interest in any biotechnology or real estate company that could benefit from the institute. But critics say other members of the ICOC should also refrain from such affiliations.

Getting such issues settled at the outset is crucial, says Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, an Oakland-based advocacy group. “You build in the structure and the rules from the start, and that is what is happening now,” she says.