Stem Cell Deliverance

Stem Cell Deliverance?
by Wise Young, Ph.D., M.D.
W. M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience
Rutgers, State University of New Jersey
9 December 2008

Bernadette Tansey of the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out in a November 29 article entitled Obama policy a lift for stem cell researchers that

Stem cell research advocates have waited nearly eight years for the policy change President-elect Barack Obama has signaled he’ll make in the early days of his administration: lifting the restrictions imposed by President Bush on federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells.

Tansey goes on to point out that Obama may be powerless to increase federal spending on stem cell research because “he will be taking office amid a historic global financial crisis.”  At the same time, she pointed out that “watchdog groups are questioning whether California taxpayers should be laying out millions of dollars for the stem cell research every year while the state’s budget deficit– as much as $28 billion over the next to years— is forcing painful spending cutbacks”.

From this perspective, it not clear that Obama’s election will substantially change stem cell research funding in the United States in 2009.   Obama cannot increase federal stem cell research funding because he doesn’t have the money to do so.  Even if he had the funds, watchdog groups are exerting pressure on states to reduce state stem cell research funding in anticipation of federal funding.

Loosening federal restrictions, however, offers several advantages over the existing situation.  First, institutions no longer must build duplicate facilites to study human embryonic stem cell lines derived after August 2001.  Second, only some states, such as California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York, are funding stem cell research whereas federal funds will be available to all states.  Third, federal support will facilitate industry investment into stem cell research.  These will be discussed sequentially below.

Saving Money for More Stem Cell Science

As Arnold Kriegstein who directs the Institute of Regenerative Medicine at UCSF pointed out, relaxing federal restrictions will save money because institutions no longer have to build duplicate facilities to study forbidden embryonic stem cells.  This will be a boon for states who have not yet invested in stem cell research but California has already spent millions building such facilities.  But, even California will save from not having to duplicate equipment for NIH- and state-funded work.

There will also be substantial savings from not having to waste time and effort studying decrepit lines that were isolated over a decade ago and shown to have chromosomal and other abnormalities.  This was what American scientists were forced to do for nearly a decade while scientists in England, Singapore, China, and other countries could derive new cell lines and study them alongside existing lines.

Giving American scientists access to over 300 new lines and allowing them to isolate new lines will allow the scientists to choose and develop the best lines to study.  Many of the newer cell lines have not been contaminated with mouse feeder cells and have been grown without animal sera, which has now become a requirement for human use.  Studies of the newer lines will not only provide more valid data but will provide data on those lines that will be used in humans.

Nationwide Stem Cell Research

At the present, only several states have approved significant funding of stem cell research, i.e. California, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, and New Jersey.  Many states with superb researchers do not have state funding to do embryonic stem cell research.  These include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Texas, Florida, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Reversing the Bush policy will allow embryonic stem cell research to be carried in all the states.

While the so-called “stem cell states” that are funding stem cell research have many of the nation’s top research institutions, many superb researchers work outside of those states.  A nationwide stem cell research program will lead to better stem cell science in the long run.  It also makes little sense to deprive some states of stem cell research and opportunity to participate in a therapeutic revolution.

Thus, the failed Bush stem cell policy not only held human embryonic stem cell research back for 8 years in the United States but balkanized the research so that it concentrated in the “blue” democratic states and was forbidden in the “red” republican states.  It is clear example of why science should never be politicized.  The outcome was not beneficial to anybody, whether one believed the research to be ethical or not.

Industry Investment in Stem Cell Research

One unfortunate side-effect of the Bush policy was its discouragement of industry investment in stem cell research.  When the federal government restricts embryonic stem cell research, state governments have a hodge podge of conflicting regulations that forbid not just the research but also use of cells for treatment, and vocal minority of the population declares the research to be unethical, it is little wonder that companies are reluctant to invest, at least publicly.

However, in the aftermath of the Obama election, several major pharmaceutical companies have come out of the closet.  Pfizer, for example, created a Biotherapeutics and Bioinnovation Center, headed by Corey Goodman.  Goodman, formerly a neuroscience professor at UC Berkeley, convinced Pfizer to invest about $100 million into stem cell research (Source).  Johnson & Johnson, likewise, has been investing significantly into human embryonic stem cell therapies.

Venture capital funding of stem cell companies has increased despite the credit crisis.  A U.S. venture group (Proteus Venture Partners in Palo Alto) will close the first phase of a $300 million fund dedicated to regenerative medicine in January 2009 (Source).  A Korean-based biotech company will form a new joint venture (Allied Cell Technology) with Advanced Cell Technology in Massachusetts (Source).  Three University of Wisconsin spinoffs are merging to form a major stem cell company with venture capital support (Source).  Increased federal funding may help companies such as  Invitrogen, which sells stem cell reagents (Source).

Summary and Conlusion

Obama’s election is unlikely to increase stem cell research funding in 2009.  He faces the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  Obama’s reversal of Bush’s stem cell policy, however, will have the following beneficial effects.  First, it will save money because it eliminates the wasteful federal requirement for duplicate facilities to do study certain stem cell lines.  Second, it will allow scientists in all states to do human embryonic stem cell research instead of just a few states.  Third, it is encouraging industry investment into the research.  Major pharmaceutical companies and venture capitalists are beginning to invest.

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