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Novato research facility plans to become key stem cell repository

NOVATO -- This spring will see the ground broken for the Buck Institute for Age Research stem cell research building, including a repository that has the potential to serve scientists all around the globe.

The Buck is close to matching a $20.5 million grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, said Buck president and COO Jim Kovach.

"We’re pursuing plans to ramp up our fundraising capability and we have grant requests to the amount of $15 million, which we'll find out about late this month. Meanwhile we have the funds to begin building and we're committed to breaking ground as soon as the weather permits," said Dr. Kovach.

The building could offer a new revenue stream in the form of a stem cell repository, supplying California researchers and others with a reliable, consistent supply of customized cells.

The new facility, the third to be built on the hilltop campus near Novato, will be another I.M. Pei-designed showcase, identical on the outside to the first research facility, but improved inside to allow more collaboration among scientists. The building will be LEED certified silver at the very least, said Dr. Kovach.

Costing about $39 million, with an additional $2 million for basic equipment, it'll house 12 principal investigative scientists on its two top floors.

Meeting and conference rooms will fill the ground floor, and in the basement will be a state-of-the-art stem cell and tissue repository, the only one of its kind on the West Coast, he said.

As stem cell research and training move forward – and the Buck is one of six California institutes to be a designated training center for growing stem cell colonies – the need for stem cell creation, storage and retrieval grows.

"We know the demand is there for this kind of facility," Dr. Kovach said. "Traditionally an institute will designate a small portion of its labs as a repository for its own scientists. And those scientists reserve their corner even before a new lab is built."

Temperature control and retrieval equipment and technology are so complex that very few facilities want to share it, he said.

Earthquake-proof, near two international airports and designated a Center of Excellence by the National Institutes of Health, the Buck has the credentials to be a stem cell provider to researchers throughout the state, the nation and overseas.

"We’ll be perfectly situated to play that role. Our teams can use a 'molecular toolbox' to copy genes of interest into stem cells, do the cutting, splicing and storing, and make the work accessible," said Dr. Kovach.

The goal is to give California researchers preferential access. Buck officials and scientists are talking with CIRM president Alan Trounson and CIRM independent oversight committee chair Robert Klein about promoting the Buck as a major source of stem cell supply.

"Our talks have just begun, and nothing has been settled yet, but the outreach done by Alan and Bob could be very advantageous to our repository and lead to cross-pollination of stem cell research globally," said Dr. Kovach.

The stem cell research being performed by Buck scientists relates to the conditions and diseases of aging, notably using stem cells to address neurological diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

But broadening the range of stem cells produced to become a general source of supply would have three distinct advantages to the institute, said Dr. Kovach.

"In addition to providing a new and welcome revenue stream, the repository will give our own researchers the advantage of being close to the resource. But most importantly, it opens up opportunities for collaboration among researchers of different disciplines, which is one of the Buck's most important goals," he said.

The Buck Institute is a non-profit research organization devoted to finding ways to extend a person's healthy lifespan.

With 145 employees, 42 percent of which have Ph.Ds, it has an annual operating budget of $31.5 million.