Stem cells: Hope on the line
A decade ago, voters in California changed the biomedical research landscape by directly funding embryonic stem-cell research. Now the organization they created needs a hit to survive.
In 2004 voters in California passed Proposition 71, a ballot measure which set up the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) and allotted US$3 billion in funding over ten years.
With California almost broke at the time, its prisons overflowing, its schools underfunded, its universities on a starvation diet, this was not an initiative which made a lot of sense – except that the Bush Administration was refusing to fund embryonic stem cell research.
Californians were told that life-saving science was being held hostage to political conservatism and religious dogma. Embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning would cure diseases ranging from cancer to HIV/AIDS to mental health disorders. If the Feds wouldn't support it, California had to step forward. So 59 percent of voters supported the establishment of the CIRM. Why wouldn’t they? The official voter information guide said that “Proposition 71 is about curing diseases and saving lives”. Who could argue with that?
Ten years later, the CIRM is gearing up to ask voters for another $5 billion in 2016.
Unfortunately for the CIRM, the most impressive advances in stem cell science during that time happened elsewhere. It was a Japanese researcher who won the Nobel Prize for stem cell science.
And more importantly, there have been no cures. “Almost every country would be jealous of what they've got in California,” Christine Mummery, a scientist from the Netherlands, told Nature recently. The CIRM has great scientists, the best facilities, the most funding, hundreds of scientific articles. But says Dr Mummery, “they haven't cured a patient, which is the critique”.
The total cost to the Californian taxpayer will be $3 billion for research approved in 2004 plus $3 billion interest plus $5 billion in 2016 plus $5 billion interest. That's $16 billion. It seems like an expensive consolation prize for the CIRM's scientists for not having won a Nobel. My advice to Californians is: don't do it.