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Stem cell research offers hope to thousands

File photo: a scientist holds a tray of stem cells.
File photo: a scientist holds a tray of stem cells.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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For the past several years, California has attracted world attention as a leader in stem cell research. And with half its voter-approved stem cell research funds committed to dozens of new projects, the focus now is on results.

Take a peek at the hit 1990s TV show "Baywatch." Along with stars David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson, you'll spot the only real lifeguard on the show, Michael Newman, strutting shirtless and in swim trunks in the sand. The muscular, former L.A. County lifeguard and ex-firefighter epitomized the healthy Southern California athlete. Newman even won the National Lifeguard Ironman Championship in 1996. But five years ago, his life changed. It began with a tremor in his left hand.

"I just attributed it to getting old, and it got worse and worse, and my friends started encouraging me, 'Mike, you gotta go see a doctor,'" Newman said.

The diagnosis wasn't good: Parkinson's disease, the degenerative disorder that attacks the central nervous system. Tremors or other symptoms slowly get worse. It gets tougher and then impossible to move or to speak.

"It took me a long time to realize that I was going to have to reorder my life. It was going to change. Just realizing you're not going to be able to do a lot of the things with your kids that you thought you were going to be able to do," Newman said.

One million people in the U.S. have Parkinson's. The National Parkinson Foundation says the number grows by 60,000 each year. Medications can ease symptoms but they don't cure the disease. Newman is more hopeful than ever that breakthrough treatments for Parkinson's are close due to stem cell research in California.

Lawrence Goldstein directs UC San Diego's stem cell program.

"It's just been one scientific advance after another. The momentum is really building both in terms of our ability to use these types of stem cells to understand all different aspects of human biology and disease, and then to aggressively as possible take that understanding and develop improved therapies," he said.

That's the mission behind the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, created in 2004 when voters approved Proposition 71. It set aside $3 billion for stem cell research at universities and research institutions in California. Housing developer and political activist Bob Klein wrote the measure after President George W. Bush limited federal funding for stem cell research to only 60 cell lines.

Klein's son was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes around that time.

"That changed the world for a father. At the same time, my mother was diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer's. To see the devastation at both ends of my family, there's an imperative to act," he said.

It took two and a half years before the state Supreme Court cleared away legal challenges to Prop 71. Klein says since 2007, research funded by Prop 71 money has sped up research into treatments for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cancer and other diseases and conditions. More than a dozen human trials are underway. Klein says stem cell transplants now let people with a certain form of leukemia live for years virtually disease-free.

"They've actually taken some of the patients off the bone marrow list, which would have been the only way to save their life because there is no disease remaining," he said.

"The program speaks for itself," said Jonathan Thomas. He chairs the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. "We have 44 bigger ticket type of awards out right now looking to develop cures for 26 incurable diseases. Anyone of these hits and it's transformative and a total game changer."

"True enough," said John M. Simpson of Consumer Watchdog's Stem Cell Project, a Santa Monica-based taxpayer and consumer advocacy group. Still he says, there is concern that the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine isn't as transparent as it should be, "There have been some organizations that felt too much of the money has gone to basic research and to some of the organizations that have directors on the CIRM board rather than to some places where actual cures could have been implemented. So far, I generally think money has been appropriately allocated."

Thomas says state funding for stem cell research has helped California forge collaborations with more than a dozen nations that will send their brightest stem cell experts to the Golden State. Sometimes, they stay. UC Santa Barbara recently brought on a British scientist who heads a leading study on age related muscular degeneration – one of the leading causes of blindness in people 65 and older.

"In just the four short years that funding's been allowed, we have just over a thousand new medical discoveries published. We're beginning to save lives," Klein said.

Thousands of Californians are counting on that.


Stephanie O’Neill, reporter for KPCC.