Embryonic Stem Cells Create New California Gold Rush

Published January 1, 2005

A far-reaching stem cell research ballot measure passed by a 59 to 41 percent vote in California on November 2, winning support across political, ideological, and religious lines. The measure gives scientists a constitutional right in California to pursue embryonic stem cell research and establishes a $3 billion research fund.

The Embryo Cloning and Stem-Cell Research Bond Act, known as Proposition 71, will allocate nearly $300 million a year over 10 years to scientific work with stem cells, particularly those derived from human embryos. The money could transform California into an incubator for stem cell research, offering support to academic institutions and companies toiling in an area previously shunned by private investors.

Richard A. Murphy, president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, was appointed to a governing board that will decide how the state spends the $3 billion research fund.

Controversial Matter

Embryonic stem cell research is controversial because it requires the destruction of human embryos, which some people regard as the earliest form of human life. Embryonic stem cells are highly valued by scientists because they can turn into any type of cell in the body.

Interest in embryonic stem cell research spiked last year with the deaths of former President Ronald Reagan, who had Alzheimer’s disease, and “Superman” actor Christopher Reeve, who died from complications of paralysis caused by a riding accident. Many people believe the cells may eventually provide cures for those afflictions as well as such illnesses as diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.

But Michael Reagan, son of the former president, disagrees strongly with that position. He recently told Human Events magazine online, “Using the widely promoted and thoroughly discredited junk science argument that stem cell research can lead to a cure of Alzheimer’s disease, the media and proponents of stem cell research have suggested that had the research been done a long time ago, my dad might have avoided the ordeal he endured. This is junk science at its worst.”

Ronald D.G. McKay, a biotech researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, told the Washington Post, “People need a fairy tale,” explaining that “scientists have allowed society to believe wrongly that stem cells are likely to effectively treat Alzheimer’s disease.”

Wesley J. Smith, a lawyer and ethicist, reported in the Weekly Standard, “Researchers have apparently known for some time that embryonic stem cells will not be an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s, because as two researchers told a Senate subcommittee in May, it is a ‘whole brain disease,’ rather than a cellular disorder such as Parkinson’s.”

Similarly, Washington Post correspondent Rick Weiss reported that although some useful data might be gleaned about Alzheimer’s through embryonic stem cell research, “[The two] stem cell experts confess … that of all the diseases that may be someday cured by embryonic stem cell treatments, Alzheimer’s is among the least likely to benefit.”

University Plans Quick Expansion

The University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) is aggressively expanding its stem cell research program, moving fast on plans for a new $65 million research facility. Days before the Prop 71 vote, Arnold Kriegstein, director of UCSF’s stem cell research program, outlined plans to accelerate and expand the university’s program.

The plans include building a 50,000- to 80,000-square-foot stem cell research facility on the Parnassus campus and recruitment of new researchers from around the world to strengthen the university’s research program. Plans also include efforts to attract post-doctorates and students to work in the field.

Kriegstein was quoted by the San Francisco Business Times on November 5 as saying, “We want to move that along more quickly … by bringing these scientists onto the campus and allowing them to interact with students and post-docs and fellows, create a teaching center as well as core facilities that will physically bring people together, and set up the kind of collaborations and interactions that will help move science along more quickly.”

UCSF is one of only two academic institutions in the United States that derived human embryonic stem cell lines that qualified for inclusion on the National Institutes of Health Stem Cell Registry.

The university receives federal funding for adult stem cell research, but is prohibited from using those funds for embryonic stem cell research.

Brain Drain

Daniel Perry, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a Washington-based group that supports expanded stem cell research, warned the California measure might hurt research efforts in other states. “Will this create a brain drain for other states, like Massachusetts, Illinois, Texas, and New York?” Perry asked in Newhouse News Service’s November 11 coverage of the California measure. “I would say mostly likely it will. These are states that are worried this will depopulate their medical school faculty, that they will see biomedical ventures flow to California.”

In an effort to ward off a run on the state’s intellectual talent, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle (D) unveiled plans, 16 days after the California proposal passed, to invest nearly $750 million to bolster stem cell research and other scientific efforts in Wisconsin. The state has invested nearly $1 billion in high-tech facilities during the past 15 years.

Doyle’s proposal, for which he seeks a combination of public and private funding, would include a $375 million institute for stem cell and other biomedical research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the only other academic institution doing embryonic stem cell research in the U.S.

Congressional Action Expected

Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the Campaign for the Advancement of Medical Research, told Reuters there are enough supporters of increased funding for embryonic stem cell research in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate to pass legislation for funding increases at the federal level, despite opposition from Bush.

In August 2001, Bush limited the use of federal funds for stem cell research to batches of cells, called lines, that existed at the time. He said taxpayers who opposed such research should not have to pay for it.

Sounding a note of optimism, Tipton told Reuters, “Presidents who know they don’t have to face the electorate again are free to act differently from those who are going to run for reelection. So I think we can be hopeful that the president is going to be a little more science-friendly.”

Conrad F. Meier ([email protected]) is senior fellow in health policy at The Heartland Institute.