Science: Supporters of California's failed 2004 stem-cell law will ask strapped taxpayers to support another $3 billion bond initiative in 2014. Maybe it's time to restore fiscal sanity as well as science to its rightful place.
When it was passed in 2004, Proposition 71, with its $3 billion state fund and 10-year mandate for embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR), held out the promise of imminent miracle cures for everything from spinal disorders to Parkinson's.
One campaign ad showed actor Christopher Reeve, aka Superman, asking California voters to "stand up for those who can't."
Some six years later, with about $1.1 billion dispersed, there have been $270 million worth of impressive new labs built, research papers published, and respected scientists hired at exorbitant salaries, but no miracle cures or even marketable therapies. And none is likely for years, if not decades, to come. The promised financial payback for the financially strapped citizens of California is also far off.
Before the money runs out, Silicon Valley real estate developer and Prop 71 architect Bob Klein, who now heads the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), is laying plans to hit voters for another $3 billion in bonds in 2014. It's based largely on his personal belief that "there will be some remarkable new therapies that will save lives and mitigate suffering substantially."
There already are. But they're coming from work with adult stem cells and umbilical-cord blood, not embryonic stem cells.
As for CIRM, "spending has resulted in many academic publications, nice laboratories and buildings, as well as huge salaries for those running" the institute, according to Dr. David Prentice, a former Indiana State University biology professor who is now a fellow with the Family Research Council. "What the swindling of taxpayers hasn't produced? Viable treatments."
Proposition 71 was based on two false premises. The first was that money was the problem and by restricting federal funding on embryonic stem-cell research to existing stem-cell lines derived from previously destroyed embryos, President George W. Bush had stopped the science in its tracks.
Federal funding of stem-cell research was one of the decisions President Bush covers in his book "Decision Points."
On Page 117, he writes: "Embryonic stem cell research seemed to offer so much hope. Yet it raised troubling moral concerns. I wondered if it was possible to find a principled policy that advanced science while respecting the dignity of life."
And here's a fact you never hear: Bush was the first president to fund embryonic stem-cell research at all. He decided to continue funding on existing stem-cell lines derived from already destroyed embryos, but not fund new lines created from embryos created just for that purpose. Private ESCR research was never banned.
The second false premise was that ESCR was the only promising avenue of such stem-cell research. Because embryonic stem cells could be easily coaxed into becoming any body part, the argument went, research into adult stem cells was a waste of time.
The Obama administration recently approved only the second human clinical trial using embryonic stem-cell lines.
"We've heard so many times that adult stem cells can't treat diseases, or only treat a few blood diseases, and those who have pointed out the truth, that adult stem cells are already helping patients for over 70 diseases and injuries, have been scorned," Prentice notes.
A Japanese researcher, Kyoto University's Shinya Yamanaka, in 2007 discovered how to tinker with human skin cells so that they behave like embryonic stem cells.
According to the National Institutes of Health, this type of stem cell offers the prospect of an endless and renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, to name a few.
Prop 71 was driven by ideology, not science. Were it otherwise, the money should have flowed to those pursuing, and producing, actual treatments and actual therapies for actual human beings.
Let's not get fooled again.