Looking Back at Proposition 71 Stem Cell Funding in California

Opinion   |   Rebecca Taylor   |   Jun 10, 2011   |   6:56PM   |   Washington, DC

Back in 2004, California voted to fund embryonic stem cell research to the tune of $3 billion dollars, $6 billion with interest. Considering that no one had ever been treated with embryonic stem cells, Proposition 71 was an outrageous proposal. The priority for funding was to be given to embryonic stem cell research, including cloning human embryos to harvest stem cells, when adult stem cell research was already treating patients.  It seemed impossible that such a large sum of hard-earned tax payer dollars was going to be spent on research that had yet to even receive an approval from the FDA for human trials. The people of California were promised cures and the citizens of the nearly broke state believed those promises.

Having worked in research in the University of California system, I had my suspicions that Proposition 71 was really about getting “free money” for scientists to tinker around with the beginnings of human life and to fund human cloning in the guise of stem cell research.  I also knew that even if cures came about as quickly as the stem cell hype suggested, researchers would patent the discoveries paid for by Prop 71, then spin off companies, and charge the people an arm and a leg for the very treatments that they funded.

Now in 2011, 6 years later, there are still no cures from the embryonic stem cell research that was the focus of Prop 71.  No one in the know thought there would be, but I bet the people of California believed the hype that cures where only around the corner.  We are far from that.  In fact there has been only one FDA approved trial with embryonic derived stem cells.  And that is only approved for a handful of spinal cord injury patients and only to test for safety.  Meanwhile, adult stem cell trials for spinal cord injury have documented results.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) the regulatory body in charge of doling out the funs from Prop 71 has had its share of problems.  Commenting on CIRM for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Hiltzik had this to say:

During its bungled search for a new chairman, the state agency that funds stem cell research has failed to address criticism that its research is too narrow and its governance overly secretive, and that it has lacked integration with the state’s overall research investment….

The taxpayer-funded institute was created by Proposition 71 in 2004 to find cures for diabetes, AIDS, Alzheimer’s and a host of other conditions via stem cell research, using $3 billion in bond proceeds ($6 billion including interest).

It goes without saying that it hasn’t found those cures, though not for want of spending. Nor has it managed to temper public expectations pumped up by the original initiative campaign, or resolved the persistent questions about whether its grant-making process is subject to adequate public oversight or free of conflicts of interest….

The agency is contemplating how to replenish its funds — possibly by going back to voters for a new bond issue — while pressure increases for it to show concrete progress toward disease cures.

So CIRM wants more tax-payer funds for more speculative research.  In an attempt to support research that may actually help real patients, the CIRM is funding more adult stem cell research.  This is good, but it is disturbing that CIRM does not not seem to understand that California is broke to the point where schools are considering cutting a month out of the the school year to save money.   To throw more tax payer money at unproven embryonic stem cell research is irresponsible.  Hiltzik laments that the Prop 71 funds are focused on a very narrow area of research and that all of the board have some vested interest in the stem cell research arena.  It is a bit like having the kids guard the cookie jar.  He also points out where the money is actually going:

There’s no question that stem cell research is important and potentially groundbreaking. But with every budget year, the folly of generously funding research in one research field while everything else withers away grows more obvious, nowhere more so than in the state’s treatment of the University of California. Plenty of the stem cell money goes to UC campuses, but plenty does not. The largest single recipient? Stanford, a private university, which has received more than $192 million of taxpayer money as of May 4. That’s more than UCLA and UC Berkeley combined.

Californians did not realize that with Prop 71 they became venture capitalists funding speculative research that creates and destroys human embryos or that their money would be going to private universities like Stanford.  I am certain that they do not understand that if cures do come, they will be paying the high cost along with everyone else.  They won’t be getting a break on cures from research that they funded.   I hope Californians have learned their lesson and I hope other states will learn from their mistakes.

LifeNews.com Note: Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology, and a practicing pro-life Catholic who writes at the bioethics blog Mary Meets Dolly. She has been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for five years and has been interviewed on EWTN radio on topics from stem cell research and cloning to voting pro-life. Taylor has a B.S. in Biochemistry from University of San Francisco with a national certification in clinical Molecular Biology MB (ASCP).