Bioethics: Five years after a budget-busting $3 billion was allocated to embryonic stem cell research, there have been no cures, no therapies and little progress. So supporters are embracing research they once opposed.
California’s Proposition 71 was intended to create a $3 billion West Coast counterpart to the National Institutes of Health, empowered to go where the NIH could not — either because of federal policy or funding restraints on biomedical research centered on human embryonic stem cells.
Supporters of the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative, passed in 2004, held out hopes of imminent medical miracles that were being held up only by President Bush’s policy of not allowing federal funding of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) beyond existing stem cell lines and which involved the destruction of embryos created for that purpose.
Five years later, ESCR has failed to deliver and backers of Prop 71 are admitting failure. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state agency created to, as some have put it, restore science to its rightful place, is diverting funds from ESCR to research that has produced actual therapies and treatments: adult stem cell research. It not only has treated real people with real results; it also does not come with the moral baggage ESCR does.
To us, this is a classic bait-and-switch, an attempt to snatch success from the jaws of failure and take credit for discoveries and advances achieved by research Prop. 71 supporters once cavalierly dismissed. We have noted how over the years that when funding was needed, the phrase “embryonic stem cells” was used. When actual progress was discussed, the word “embryonic” was dropped because ESCR never got out of the lab.
Prop 71 had a 10-year mandate and by 2008, as miracle cures looked increasingly unlikely, a director was hired for the agency with a track record of bringing discoveries from the lab to the clinic. “If we went 10 years and had no clinical treatments, it would be a failure,” says the institute’s director, Alan Trounson, a stem cell pioneer from Australia. “We need to demonstrate that we are starting a whole new medical revolution.”
The institute is attempting to do that by funding adult stem cell research. Nearly $230 million was handed out this past October to 14 research teams. Notably, only four of those projects involve embryonic stem cells.
Among the recipients, the Los Angeles Times reports, is a group from UCLA and Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles that hopes to cure patients with sickle cell disease by genetically modifying their own blood-forming stem cells to produce healthy red blood cells. Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center will use their grant to research injecting heart-attack patients with concentrated amounts of their own cardiac stem cells that naturally repair heart tissue.
Dr. Bernadine Healy, director of the National Institutes of Health under Bush 41, wrote in her U.S. News & World Report column recently that “embryonic stem cells, once thought to hold the cure for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes, are obsolete.”
Even worse, they can be dangerous. They are difficult to control, to coax into the specific type of tissue desired. Unlike adult stem cells taken from a patient’s own body, ES cells require the heavy use of immunosuppressive drugs. Their use can lead to a form of tumor called a teratoma.
Real promise is held in what are called induced pluripotent stem cells. In 2006, researchers led by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Japan’s Kyoto University were first able to “reprogram” human skin cells to behave like embryonic stem cells. They can do everything stem cells from destroyed embryos can do.
The National Institutes of Health has said that this type of stem cell offers the prospect of having a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzhei-mer’s, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, to name a few.
It is ESCR researchers who have politicized science and stood in the way of real progress. We are pleased to see California researchers beginning to put science in its rightful place.