Packed inside an incubator in a laboratory at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles are dozens of miniature petri dishes containing a reddish-orange liquid.

Suspended in the gel are millions of human embryonic stem cells and with them, the promise of destroying fatal brain tumors, repairing damaged hearts and producing insulin in diabetics.

But for researcher Carolyn Lutzko, one of the few scientists in Los Angeles actually growing the cells, any hopes for medical miracles remain far in the distance.

"With these things you are spending 50 to 70 percent of your time trying to keep them alive," said Lutzko, who is also an assistant professor of pediatrics at USC's Keck School of Medicine. "They are slower growing. They are less predictable, and they are more delicate."

Such is the reality of human embryonic stem cell research. While institutions in Los Angeles and elsewhere are gearing up for $3 billion in statewide grants for accelerated stem cell research, the field is still in its infancy. The work is very fundamental more so than many voters may have realized when they passed Proposition 71 in November.

Just last week came another setback: the existing lines, including the ones in Lutzko's incubator, are contaminated with a mouse protein that will likely make them unsuitable for human therapies. This will require scientists to create new uncontaminated colonies, perhaps setting back cures for several years.

Even so, dozens of researchers in the Los Angeles area already performing research using other types of stem cells are clamoring to get a share of the money, which will largely be targeted for human embryonic stem cells the ones that hold the most promise.

"I don't mean to sound like a Pollyana, but this is a silver bullet," said Dr. John Torday, a professor of pediatrics at Harbor UCLA Medical Center who expects to seek funding for stem cell research on treating chronic lung disease. "I think it's a major breakthrough. It's a technical tour de force."

Broad interest

At UCLA, researchers now working with stem cells from rats hope to one day fix damaged spinal cords and brains. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center researchers, using adult neural stem cells, are conquering brain tumors in mice, and researchers at the City of Hope are trying to grow human embryonic stem cells to produce human insulin.

They're all hoping to secure some grant money from the newly formed California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, an outgrowth of Proposition 71. If the government-funded effort works, it will jumpstart an industry in California and could lead to dramatic advances in treatments borne out of stem cell research.


For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.