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Posted on July 24, 2014 at 5:33 PM

(I made an error about a past video involving the late actor Christopher Reeve in my post yetsterday. I strongly implied, at least, that such a video was used in the 2004 campaign for passage of California Prop. 71.  That would not be correct.  The video in question, easily found on YouTube, was aired [it indicates there] by Nuveen Investments during the 2000 Super Bowl.  I am deleting the statement from my post, below, and I regret the error, which is entirely mine and which I should not have made.–JTH)

Amidst the recent results and retractions, Nature also published a “news” report fretting over the prospects for renewal of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) because the initially-promised miracle cures from embryonic stem cells have not materialized.

Recall:  the CIRM was established in 2004 after passage of California Proposition 71, which created the institute and authorized the issuance of $3 billion in state bonds to provide financing.  The charge was to advance human stem cell research, with an eye toward developing new cellular treatments for serious or life-threatening disorders like cancer, neurodegenerative disease, spinal cord injury, or, for that matter, anything else.  The language of the proposition specifically said that human somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), more succinctly known as cloning, was a priority to receive funding, whether the cloning was to provide cells for treatment of human disease (“therapeutic” cloning) or for basic science (“research” cloning).

The state’s voter information guide said that Prop. 71 was “ABOUT CURING DISEASES AND SAVING LIVES.”  It was indeed printed in all-capital letters.

All this was of course wildly overoptimistic, and while much has been done under the CIRM, cures have not yet been forthcoming.  That this would be the case was obvious in 2004, and pointed out by opponents of Prop. 71.  CIRM supporters say they have learned a lesson.  Yet, the hyperbolic title of the Nature article is, “Hope on the Line,” and it points out that many in the general public are disappointed by results to date.  Well, really.

The CIRM has a fairly extensive website, although the day I most recently visited it, it didn’t seem to be running optimally.  Under “Our Progress,” and “Where our Funding Goes,” is an accounting of how much money has been awarded (about $2.18 billion so far, with another $320 million on the launching pad), and a set of graphics summarizing how the funding has been allocated.   About 69% has been allocated to “research” vs 11% for “training” and 20% for “facilities” (infrastructure, like labs to do the work).  It looks like there have been a total of about 450 grants, with a little over half of those involving embryonic stem cells (from a human embryo); about 20% involving induced pleuropotent stem cells (iPSCs), the sort that do not require creation or destruction of an embryo; and between 15 and 20% involving adult stem cells.  For research related to developing treatments, there appear to have been about 100 grants, with about 2/3 of those using iPSCs, about 10% using adult stem cells, and most of the rest used stem cells actually derived from a human embryo.  The number of grants specifically for SCNT looks small indeed (5 or fewer).  There are also a couple of grants for cancer stem cells, which give rise to cancer but aren’t really the “stem cells” referred to in general news reports about “stem cell research.”  A wide range of disease areas are being studied.

For the most part, these are grants awarded to academic or research institutions, although some support industry, including a recent $14 million award to Asterias Biotherapeutics to continue clinical testing of embryonic stem cells previously abandoned by Geron.  Other biotech companies, such as OncoMed, Bluebird Bio, and ViaCyte—which is planning a clinical trial of human embryonic stem cells to treat diabetes—have been grant recipients.

For all the information on the website, it is hard to pull out just how many grants have been for clinical trials, where people might have a chance to benefit directly.  Your correspondent is sure that information can be had from the website, but has not put in what looks to be the rather substantial  further  effort required to get a number.

At least, CIRM-funded researchers say, the money is being allocated based on scientific merit, rather than potential profitability—if you don’t count the benefits that come from keeping one’s lab funded, which means the researchers still have jobs.  OK, to be fair, that last sentence is probably a bit of a low blow; the work does appear, on a top level, to have scientific merit.  But allegations of preferential treatment of scientific insiders has been one of the troubles dogging the CIRM in recent years.

And much—though certainly not all—of the work appears to be ethically permissible, by the criterion that only research that does not require human life to be created or destroyed is ethical.

The money runs out in 2017, when a renewal—“CIRM 2”—will depend on public approval, presumably again by California’s initiative process.  It will be an interesting campaign.  It could be a tough sell.  The public discourse should address all the ethical issues involved, in a balanced way, without allegations of the sort raised by Robert Klein, the initial driving force behind the CIRM, who worries about a “theocratic government…that restricts scientific research in this country for the next 50-100 years.”  And the public should not be sold false hope.


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