Do We Really Need the Feds?

Funding stem-cell research without Uncle Sam


In August 2001, President George Bush limited federal spending on human embryonic stem-cell research to stem-cell lines derived before that date. President Bush said that he was restricting federal support for research to those lines because he did not want to "encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life." So far only 22 stem-cell lines qualify for federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research, and the National Institutes of Health provided only $24.3 million last year for such research. It's impossible to tell what the level of federal funding for such research would be now in the absence of the administration's restrictions, because it is impossible to know how many good solid research proposals those restrictions have deterred from even being submitted.

However, these federal funding restrictions have provoked an outpouring of state initiatives for research funding for stem-cell research. So far four states have put taxpayer dollars behind human embryonic stem-cell research. The 800 pound gorilla in the stem cell funding arena is California. Last November, California voters passed $3 billion initiative that created the new California Institute of Regenerative Medicine that aims to fund stem-cell research at $300 million annually for the next ten years. That is more than 12 times higher than current federal funding. California will not only be outspending the U.S. Federal government; it will be trouncing whole countries on stem-cell research funding. For example, the United Kingdom has plans to spend $175 million per year on stem-cell research. In 2002, the Australian government awarded the Australia Stem Cell Centre with $43.55 million over four years. And the research of South Korean scientists who have recently been making breakthroughs in cloning human embryonic stem cells has been supported by about $11 million in government grants.

The other three states that have ponied up for stem-cell research are New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois. New Jersey has allocated $150 million to construct a new stem-cell research center, and Governor Richard Codey is proposing a November 2006 referendum to ask voters to authorize $230 million to fund the research. Connecticut has passed legislation authorizing $100 million in spending on both adult and embryonic stem-cell research over the next 10 years. In Illinois, Governor Rod Blagojevich moved $10 million of state public health research funding to establish a new stem-cell research institute called the Illinois Regenerative Medicine Institute. This was in lieu of a much more ambitious plan by state Comptroller Dan Hynes, who proposed a $1 billion referendum to create an Illinois Regenerative Medicine Institute that would have dispensed $100 million a year in research grants and loans over the next 10 years. The proposal would have been funded by a 6 percent tax on face-lifts, Botox injections and other cosmetic procedures.

Many other states are mulling over various proposals to fund stem-cell research. In Massachusetts, legislators are expected to introduce a bill proposing that the state spend $100 million on stem-cell research. In North Carolina, a bill proposing to use $10 million from the state's tobacco settlement proceeds to fund stem-cell research has been introduced in the state legislature. Even in the president's home state, the Texas House of Representatives approved selling $41.1 million in bonds to build a stem-cell research facility at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. (Gov. Rick Perry says that he is against spending taxpayer money on research that ends human life.) In March, legislation was introduced in the New York State Assembly to create the New York State Institute for stem-cell research and Regenerative Medicine with annual funding of $100 million. The Maryland House of Representatives approved a bill allocating $23 million to a stem-cell research Fund–the bill died in the state Senate. A bill creating the Pennsylvania stem-cell research Council that would disburse the research funding created through a $500 million bond initiative paid for by a 2 percent tax on medical devices and diagnostic equipment has been introduced in the Pennsylvania State House.

Setting aside commercial efforts like those of the Geron Corporation, private funding for academic stem-cell research is also rising. For example, the Starr Foundation is providing $50 million over three years for human embryonic stem-cell research at three New York City medical institutions, including the Sloan-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center. The Harvard University Stem Cell Institute is seeking $100 million in private funding. The University of California, Los Angeles announced the establishment of its Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine with $20 million in funding over the next 5 years. Stanford University announced the creation of $120 million Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine in 2002. Former Intel CEO Andy Grove gave the University of California in San Francisco a matching grant of $5 million to start its Developmental and Stem Cell Biology Program. In 2001, an anonymous donor gave Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore a $58.5 million gift to launch an Institute for Cell Engineering. The University of Minnesota has set up a Stem Cell Institute with a $15 million capital grant. In 2004, an a grateful patient pledged $25 million over the next ten years to finance stem-cell research at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

Given all of these sources of funding for stem-cell research, it's a real question whether or not researchers need the Feds at this point. And one more deliciously ironic thought: It's just possible that, by imposing his funding restrictions and spurring so many independent initiatives, President Bush has actually caused the creation of more embryonic stem cell lines than would have been produced with federal funding.