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UC Berkeley Press Release

Chancellor Birgeneau, Lt. Gov. Bustamente and Prof. Schekman at Prop. 71 news conference UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau says he will be an advocate for the public as a member of the new stem cell research oversight committee. Looking on are Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (center), who announced Birgeneau's appointment to the panel, and Professor Randy Schekman. (Steve McConnell photos)

UC Berkeley chancellor named to Prop. 71 stem cell oversight committee

– Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau was named today (Monday, Nov. 15) to a committee charged with overseeing the implementation of California's new $3 billion stem cell research effort.

"I'm pleased and honored by this appointment," Birgeneau said, after Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante made the announcement at a press conference at UC Berkeley's Hearst Memorial Mining Building. "This is an important responsibility, and there is much work to be done."

Video clips

Cruz BustamanteLt. Gov Cruz Bustamante announces the appointment of UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau to the Prop. 71 oversight committee. (1:55)

Robert BirgeneauUC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau praises the "tremendous opportunity" of stem cell research and his gratitude to be named to the committee. (5:06)

Randy SchekmanDevelopmental Biology Professor Randy Schekman describes how stem cell research is the bridge between today's palliative care for many diseases and hope for a cure through stem cell research. (6:02)

Kevin HealyKevin Healy, QB3 affiliate and professor of bioengineering and materials science and engineering, describes how his lab is creating new mediums to grow stem cells in a safer, less-contaminated environment. (3:29)
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Bustamante said he chose Birgeneau because "the UC Berkeley life sciences faculty is among the most distinguished in the country" and the chancellor is "a world figure in physics."

Birgeneau is the third person to be named to the 29-member Independent Citizens Oversight Committee, which must be in place by mid-December, with grants issued beginning in March. Already appointed are Stanford University Medical School Dean Philip A. Pizzo and Richard Murphy, president of the Salk Institute in San Diego.

Birgeneau told print and broadcast reporters during a question-and-answer session that his background in physics - and not the biological sciences - would allow him to be objective and fair on the committee.

"I will ensure that the money is well and ethically spent," Birgeneau said. "We need to put together a team of experts and put together lists of what is most promising."

When asked how people would be assured that Birgeneau would put the state's interests before UC Berkeley's, he said, "First, they have my word. That's the most important thing. Second, I'm one of 29 people on the committee."

California's stem cell research effort is the result of Proposition 71, a $3 billion bond measure approved by 59 percent of the voters on Nov. 2. The measure sets up a new agency - the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine - modeled as a state version of the National Institutes of Health. The bond measure was put forward in the wake of the Bush administration's decision to limit federal funding for any research that involves the destruction of human embryos, the source of some stem cells.

Prop. 71 backers argued that existing stem cell colonies used for research are unreliable, are contaminated by the mouse cells used as a medium for growth, and cannot be propagated.

Randy Schekman, a UC Berkeley developmental biology professor who participated in the press conference, noted that stem cell research will follow earlier groundbreaking work by the state and the University of California system in the field of biotechnology.

"Once again, we are facing a revolutionary technology, and California is leading the way," said Schekman, who is UC Berkeley's designated representative to a UC systemwide group focusing on Prop. 71 implementation.

Prof. Kevin Healy demonstrates polymer gel
UC Berkeley researcher Kevin Healy (center) demonstrates a hydrogel used for stem cell research for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and the media.

"California is blessed with a number of research institutions. Berkeley is the best of the best," Bustamante said.

Both Birgeneau and Schekman said they had personal brushes with the illnesses targeted by stem cell researchers. Schekman said his wife has Parkinson's disease, and Birgeneau said he had a close colleague suffer and die from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease.

"We all have family and friends that suffer from these diseases," Schekman said. "Now, we have the prospect of not just palliative care (such as treating diabetes with injections), but cures."

The oversight committee will manage the institute and appoint the committee responsible for parceling out the research grants. Bustamante, Birgeneau and Schekman stressed repeatedly on Monday that although the measure has controversial aspects, the initiative spells out how to handle some of these situations. For example, cloning is specifically banned, and the proposition requires a committee of outside experts with no stake in the outcome to be involved.

"I'm confident that this proposition and its implementation will be held to the strictest guidelines," Schekman said. "We're eager to cooperate, we're also eager to begin to recruit . and we're eager to begin."

Bustamante emphasized that the measure is already attracting outside investment and talent to the state.

"It's this century's Gold Rush," Bustamante said. "Everyone is coming to California."

Schekman said one of the next major steps is a meeting in early December at the National Academy of Sciences facility at UC Irvine with grant agencies and other grant experts who will advise involved parties on the best ways to analyze proposals and distribute the funds.

Bustamante, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Controller Steve Westly and Treasurer Phil Angelides will each appoint five members to the oversight committee; the five UC medical schools will appoint one member each, and the leaders of the state Assembly and Senate will appoint two people. Once formed, that group of 27 people will select two more members to be chairperson and vice chairperson.

The lieutenant governor's appointment of Birgeneau fulfills a committee requirement that one of its members be an executive officer of a California university with a recent proven history administering scientific and/or medical research grants. That university also must be one of the top 10 U.S. universities with the highest number of life-science patents or have faculty members who are members of the National Academy of Sciences.

UC Berkeley administers scientific and medical research grants and contracts in an average range exceeding $100 million yearly. It also has 125 faculty members who have been named to the academy.

Also on Monday, UC Berkeley officials gave Bustamante and reporters a tour of a lab in the mining building that is developing a synthetic material that would be a better medium on which to grow stem cells than the current medium, which uses mouse cells and is vulnerable to contamination.

Kevin Healy, a UC Berkeley professor of bioengineering and materials science and engineering, used a syringe to manipulate the hydrogel, a sticky substance similar to contact lens material, and showed on a computer screen how stem cells are grown on it. Currently, he uses a Bush administration-approved stem cell line that is stored at UC San Francisco to do his research.

Healy is a faculty affiliate with the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research (QB3), a UC, state and industry partnership designed to harness the powerful quantitative tools of the physical sciences, engineering and mathematics to tackle complex biological problems.

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