5 Questions: Longaker on stem cell research

Michael Longaker

In November Californians passed Proposition 71, opening up $3 billion for stem cell research over the next 10 years. Stanford has begun organizing a Program in Regenerative Medicine to help capitalize on this new source of funding. Medical Center Report writer Amy Adams spoke with Michael Longaker, MD, professor of medicine and chair of the program's advisory committee, about how this effort will take advantage of this new funding source.

1. How is Stanford organizing its stem cell research efforts?

Longaker: We recently announced the formation of the Program in Regenerative Medicine, which is part of the Stanford Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine. The PRM includes School of Medicine scientists performing stem cell research and also encompasses investigators from other schools across the campus who collaborate on interdisciplinary stem cell and regenerative medicine projects. We are fortunate that Stanford is not an isolated health sciences campus, and we would like PRM programs and research grants submitted to the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, to reflect the diversity of the science at Stanford.

2. What are the first CIRM grants Stanford may receive?

Longaker: Our early applications will be for grants to fund the equipment, personnel and supplies for human embryonic stem cell, or hESC, research facilities. The first CIRM facility grant will equip an existing laboratory within the School of Medicine. We will use additional grants to remodel and equip hESC laboratories in space that the medical school has leased off campus. The long-term plan is to submit a CIRM facility grant to help fund the construction of a research building on the Medical Quad that will house the Cancer/Stem Cell Institute. A second general category for CIRM grants in the short term will be for funds to train and educate students and post-doctoral research fellows.

3. Are new facilities what people hoped for when they voted for Prop. 71?

Longaker: One of the goals for PRM research is to generate new human embryonic stem cell lines, research that cannot be funded by federal dollars. Given these restrictions, we must keep the CIRM-sponsored embryonic stem cell research separate from federally sponsored research. This means we must provide separate facilities, personnel, supplies and equipment to those carrying out this research. We plan to approach this separation using existing facilities, remodeling facilities to meet these updated requirement and by constructing new facilities. In this regard, I believe that Californians understand that some of the funds, particularly in the early years, will help fund the construction of new facilities to house the important research CIRM will eventually fund.

4. How is Stanford positioned to compete against other California schools?

Longaker: An incredible strength of Stanford is the depth and breadth of our science. Stanford is fortunate to have outstanding faculty in all schools and two world-class hospitals in close proximity on a single campus. PRM grants will try to leverage this diversity of science through interdisciplinary grants addressing hESC biology. When you combine scientists with really diverse backgrounds in an interdisciplinary approach the sparks fly in a really positive way.

Stanford also has a track record of translating research discoveries into clinical treatments and into industry. I strongly believe that CIRM leadership will recognize that the PRM at Stanford is distinct from other California schools and brings together a strategy involving science, business, law and education to address important hESC research and policies.

5. What will Stanford do to make sure taxpayers get a return on their investment in Prop. 71 grant dollars?

Longaker: We are going to link faculty from the Business and Law Schools to develop strategies to monitor the return on investment for CIRM funds. Ten years is a short amount of time to discover, commercialize and translate hESC biology into therapies that cure diseases. We must have research that is first rate in terms of quality, but also focused to meet taxpayer expectations set by a 10-year time frame. In short, we have to combine a research culture with a business approach.