SAN FRANCISCO -- The future of embryonic stem cell research could be shaped in a suburban courtroom where two taxpayer groups are challenging the legality of California's new agency dedicated to the controversial field.
Opening statements were scheduled for today in a pair of lawsuits seeking to invalidate the law that created the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, which is authorized to hand out $3 billion in research grants. The lawsuits allege, among other things, that it violates a state constitutional mandate that the spending of taxpayer dollars be under state control.
''The act delegates the disbursal of huge sums of public money to the unfettered discretion of an institution whose governing board and working groups are unaccountable to the public," one of the lawsuits said.
When voters created the institute in November 2004, stem cell scientists saw it as giving new traction to a field hamstrung by federal limitations on funding.
Proposition 71 authorized the agency to dole out an average of $300 million in research grants each year over 10 years, but 15 months later the agency has yet to hand out a dime because of its legal troubles. The lawsuits have scared off lenders, who won't buy the institute's bonds until the litigation is resolved.
Human embryonic stem cells are created in the first days after conception and give rise to all the organs and specialized tissues in the body. Scientists hope they can someday use stem cells to replace diseased tissue, but many social conservatives, including President Bush, oppose the work because human embryos are destroyed during research.
Proposition 71 was a reaction to the Bush administration's decision to cap federal funding for stem cell research at about $25 million annually and to impose strict research guidelines that scientists say limit advances.
The guidelines in the California proposition, backed by 59 percent of the electorate, are much broader than the federal rules.
The state's research universities launched stem cell programs and began to recruit new talent in anticipation of multimillion-dollar state grants. California's plan even prompted other states to announce similar, if less ambitious, programs.
But the lack of funding prompted the schools to scale back plans to expand stem cell research and has hampered recruiting. The sought-after husband-and-wife research team of Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins turned down an offer from Stanford University and accepted positions in Singapore.
''We had hoped we would be able to get funding from the stem cell institute," Copeland said. ''But without that money available, that would have been very difficult."
The lawsuits contend that the committee overseeing the agency is beyond state control. Elected state officials appoint 22 of the 29 members, and five are appointed by the University of California system. The two remaining members are a chair and vice chair appointed by the board.
One lawsuit was filed by the People's Advocate and the National Tax Limitation Foundation, represented by Life Legal Defense Foundation, the antiabortion group that helped finance the fight in Florida to keep Terri Schiavo alive in a high-profile right-to-die case.
Wealthy Palo Alto real estate developer Robert Klein, who spearheaded the Proposition 71 drive and is chairman of the agency's oversight committee, has said the taxpayer foundation is a front for religious groups who oppose embryonic stem cell research.
The group's lawyers deny that but concede the group opposes the research on moral grounds.
The second suit was filed by a new nonprofit called the California Family
Lawyers for all sides declined to comment on the case or didn't return telephone calls.
The cases are being heard together by a judge in a nonjury trial in Hayward.
In November, Judge Bonnie Lewman Sabraw refused to toss out the lawsuits, but said the taxpayer groups had a high legal hurdle to prove the voter-approved agency was ''clearly, positively, and unmistakably unconstitutional."
Even some of the agency's harshest critics believe the institute will prevail. Recent actions, such as one ensuring the state will share any profits arising from state grant projects, show it's starting to function as a government agency.