Update: Stem cell developments

Research set to take off in California

Illustration: Guy Billout


California voters gave stem cell research a thumbs-up this November when they passed Proposition 71, also known as the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative. Prop. 71’s passage, which provided $3 billion for stem cell studies over the next 10 years, makes California the largest source of funding for this field of work in the nation.

Scientists believe they can use stem cells, which can grow into any kind of tissue, to develop therapies for a wide variety of diseases. Yet concerns over the use of embryonic stem cells and policies limiting the amount of federal funding that can be used on this research are still in force. As discussed in the Fall 2004 issue of Stanford Medicine, many scientists believe the federal policy has impeded their work in this area.

Prop. 71 establishes the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to administer the distribution of the new research dollars. The institute will have a grant review process similar to that of the National Institutes of Health. Experts predict the new funding source will attract researchers from all over the country to California, as well as prompt other states to take action.

“Many states will be concerned about a brain drain to California, along with the loss of R&D developments through biotechnology and will try to reposition themselves accordingly,” says Philip Pizzo, MD, dean of the medical school and a member of the committee in charge of overseeing the new state institute.

Indeed, just weeks after the initiative’s passage, the governor of Wisconsin announced plans to invest $750 million to support embryonic stem cell research and other medical studies. And Larry Soler, director of government relations for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, predicts similar efforts will be made in several other states, including Illinois, Massachusetts and New York, within the year.

The impact on national policy remains less clear. Pizzo says California’s bold move “absolutely and unequivocally” sends a message to lawmakers that federal policy — which currently limits funding to 19 stem cell lines — should change. But Hank Greely, JD, a law professor with the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, says he’s unsure whether the message will be read.

National implications

“Because this became a significant issue in the national election, it would be very hard for Bush to soften his position without causing real distress among his strongest supporters,” elaborates Greely.

Soler suggests that the president’s opposition to the research might ease, pointing out that Bush boasted numerous times on the campaign trail about being the first president to fund stem cell research. Greely agrees the president could change his policy if there is a “dramatic breakthrough in treating human disease with embryonic stem cells.”

But strong critics persist. The U.S. House of Representatives twice passed a bill banning both reproductive and therapeutic “cloning,” though it failed to pass the Senate. Similar bills will likely be introduced this year. Though experts predict the Senate deadlock will continue, if the bill does ever land on the president’s desk, California stem cell research would likely be constrained. There are also reports of efforts by stem cell opponents to fight the issue in several state legislatures.

California will push forward with the research. Stanford will vie for a share of the new dollars, and Irving Weissman, MD, (SM ’65), director of Stanford’s stem cell institute, says initial efforts here will focus on setting up new facilities and recruiting researchers. Space is critically important, Weissman says, because Stanford’s institute is currently homeless.

“There is no place for our researchers to do their work, and we can’t expand our program or attract new researchers to Stanford without adequate facilities,” Weissman says.

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