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Calif. Education Officials, CIRM Pursue Regenerative Medicine Basics for Public Schools


By Alex Philippidis

California education officials have joined the state's stem-cell agency to support potential new curricula that would teach state high school students the basics of regenerative medicine.

The curriculum is part of legislation that passed the state Senate last week, and that life-sci industry advocates are asking Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign into law.

Senate Bill 471, the Stem Cell and Biotechnology Education and Workforce Development Act of 2009, calls for the state Department of Education to work with representatives of the biotech industry and California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to "promote stem cell and biotechnology education and workforce development” within the department's existing programs, including but not limited to:

• The California Health Science Educators Institute, which funds school systems intent on developing or that have established health science career pathways;
• The Health Science Capacity Building Project, aimed at producing programs to train workers for nursing and other high-demand healthcare jobs;
• The California Partnership Academies, a three-year (grades 10-12) program designed to integrate academic and career instruction;
• The K-12 High Speed Network, aimed at providing access to high speed network and Internet services to students and teachers;
• The Regional Science Resource Centers, the California Career Resource Network, including the State Agency Partners Committee; and "multiple pathway" programs, defined as programs of study that connect classroom instruction with applications outside of school.

SB 471 also requires the department of education to post on its website a model curriculum on stem-cell science being developed by CIRM, as well as communicate to science teachers and school districts the availability of that curriculum.

The bill also requests that the University of California, in consultation with CIRM, include stem cell and biotechnology information in the California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science, a four-week academic-residential program for “talented and motivated” students completing grades 8-12.

Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on SB 471, a spokeswoman told BioRegion News. Industry advocates and opponents of human embryonic stem-cell research expect him to sign the bill given his past as a staunch supporter of Proposition 71, the 2004 ballot initiative in which a majority of voters approved the state issuing $3 billion in bonds toward stem-cell research and facilities.

‘Homegrown Workforce’

The measure was introduced Feb. 26 by state Senate Education Committee Chair Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) and authored by her and state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

"The expanded research made possible by [President Obama] lifting the federal restrictions [on human embryonic stem cell research in March] will exacerbate the demand for workers in the stem cell and biotechnology fields," Romero said in a statement. "It is more urgent than ever that our public schools develop a homegrown workforce so California retains its premier position in these growing sectors of the economy."

SB 471 passed the state Senate on Sept. 10 by 23-13, almost entirely on party lines with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing the measure. That vote came two days after the state Assembly approved the measure 52-26, along similar party lines.

In between the introduction and the final votes, SB 471 was rewritten to eliminate provisions requiring the state Board of Education to incorporate the stem-cell science curriculum into the state's Science Framework for California Public Schools, the 313-page document that spells out what local K-12 public school systems

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should teach their students about science. The current Framework has no standards that specifically cover "stem cell" or "regenerative medicine."

"Even then, Sen. Romero was advised to go ahead for the legislation because it would make it more difficult for some conservative school districts to opt out of stem cell education for ethical reasons," Gibbons said. Local school systems have final say on textbooks for high school grades; the state oversees K-8 text adoption.

The prospect of the state writing a curriculum that supported the use of human embryonic stem cells prompted two groups to oppose the original bill: the California Catholic Conference, and the Life Legal Defense Foundation. The groups hold that the destruction of embryos involved in obtaining hESCs is immoral and unnecessary given the availability of adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells derivable from adult stem cells.

"We opposed the bill originally — and finally — because the intent language reads like the ads for Proposition 71: Stem cells, embryonic primarily, will cure everything," Carol Hogan, a spokeswoman for the California Catholic Conference, told BRN. “We asked that if a science curriculum was to be developed that it not be ideological, but that it be practical and factual."

Hogan and Dana Cody, executive director of the Life Legal Defense Foundation, told BRN that a factual curriculum would point out that hESCs have produced no therapies or cures, and that better results have been obtained from research using adult stem cells that do not involve embryo destruction, with additional potential from induced pluripotent stem cells derived from adult stem cells.

However, both said they will not challenge the bill.

"SB 471 was very watered down by the time it was passed [by the state Senate]; it is not mostly an intent bill," Hogan said.

Cody contrasted the bill with the rejection by state courts of one argument her group made against Proposition 71: That CIRM's governing board, the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee, was not entitled to spend money because it wasn't under the exclusive management control of the state, and was looking to spend money outside the bounds of the ballot measure by seeking to fund K-12 and undergraduate education in addition to research.

Proposition 71 allows the state in part to "issue bonds to support stem cell research," with education and training held by state courts to expressions of support for stem cell research, and thus legal under the ballot measure.

"We think the enactment of [SB 471] is a big 'I-told-you-so,' and it gives our position several years ago when we were in court a lot more credibility than it did back then," Cody said. "With our state budget and the economy overall, why they see the need for this curriculum is beyond me."

The measure carries a one-time cost of $65,000 to implement, according to a Sept. 9 bill analysis by the state Senate Rules Committee.

The analysis listed several supporters for SB 471, including Californians for Cures, the patient advocacy group headed by Don C. Reed; the University of California and California State University systems; the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce; BayBio, the life sciences industry group for the San Francisco Bay Area and northern California; BIOCOM, the industry group for the San Diego region.

"We hope that that helps add to the inspiration that is available to young science students thinking about their career pathway," Matthew Gardner, president and CEO of BayBio, told BRN.

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October Debut

While lawmakers considered the bill in recent months, officials from CIRM and the University of California, Berkeley, have worked to develop a stem cell curriculum. The stem-cell agency will post a curriculum portal on its web site by the end of October, by which time it expects to have completed the first five lesson plans, CIRM spokesman Don Gibbons told BRN.

"All five — a week's worth of stem cell classes — should be up on our web site and available for teachers anywhere to use by the end of October,” he said. “The web site will have links to several other existing curriculum pieces we have found and we will add a few more classes over time.”

According to Gibbons, who has worked on CIRM's curriculum-development effort, each lesson plan will cover a one-class session with PowerPoint presentation, embedded videos, accompanying notes for the teachers, and questions the teachers will be encouraged to ask students. The lessons would be built into students' regular biology or advanced-placement biology courses.

The first lesson was tested this past spring in 23 Bay Area high schools, then revised based on comments from students and teachers. A copy of that lesson plan has been posted on the web site of Stem Cell Awareness Day — Sept. 23 — that will include events ranging from a CIRM-sponsored poetry contest to this year's World Stem Cell Summit set for Baltimore, and the deployment of 35 CIRM-funded researcher grant recipients to classrooms across the state.

"We wanted to empower them with a starting point. We hope they will take this material and then personalize it with their own research,” Gibbons said. “But we wanted to make sure they had a starting point that we knew was at the right level for the audience they were speaking to.”

He said organizers expect “to reach close to 3,000 students" since many schools will present the researchers at school-wide assemblies attended by hundreds of students."

According to Gibbons, the presentations are designed to relate stem-cell research to basic biology. "You can relate stem cells to a disease [or] something [the students have] heard about recently, so something like development of biology becomes a little less pedantic when it's taught through stem cells,” he said.

CIRM’s training goes beyond the high school grades. For instance, the agency has set aside one round of 11 grants totaling $17 million to undergraduate- and masters-level students seeking to learn stem cell research techniques; and has awarded 31 grants totaling $78 million to train doctoral, post-doctoral, and clinical fellows to work on stem cell projects.

Kristie Grover, director of the BIOCOM Institute, noted that several institutions in the San Diego region offer stem cell instruction and training. These include the NIH-funded Human Embryonic Stem Cells: Comprehensive Training Program offered by the Scripps Research Institute to staff, including graduate, postdoc, and faculty researchers, set for Oct. 6-14; and CIRM-funded programs at the University of California, San Diego; San Diego State University; and California State University-San Marcos.

'Fortuitous' Timing

Gibbons said work on the curriculum began before Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers sank into a stalemate during the spring and summer over the state’s fiscal 2010 budget. Because of the yawning budget gap they had to close, officials are banned from ordering new textbooks until 2014.

"I think it's fortuitous that we were going down that route," begun when CIRM considered hiring an outside consultant to develop a month-long stem-cell teaching module, Gibbons said.

That option became impractical when the state eliminated the $700,000 Curriculum Development and Supplemental Materials Commission, established in 1927, as part of the budget deal.

That cutback will prevent the state from developing and revising curricula for five years. The ban includes the Science Framework for California Public Schools, the 313-page document that spells out science curricula for state-funded K-12 schools, an ironic twist because the current edition has no standards that specifically cover "stem cell" or "regenerative medicine."

The Science Framework was developed in 2004, and was slated for revision in 2012.

Gibbons said the online stem cell lesson plans being developed are not being required for teachers to use, allowing it to bypass the need for curriculum commission approval.

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