Stem Cells Sell

There's no shortage of private funding for research


The National Institutes of Health spent $24.3 million dollars on human embryonic stem-cell research last year. Critics of President Bush's policy of limiting federal funding to only those stem-cell lines derived before August 2001 worry that this amount—relative to NIH's annual $30 billion budget—is not enough. Persuaded of the importance of this research, the U.S. House of Representatives voted in May to lift President Bush's funding restrictions. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced this summer that he supported that legislation. The Senate is poised to vote on the issue later this fall.

But do stem-cell researchers really need the feds? Already there is nearly $4 billion in private and state monies committed to stem-cell research over the next decade, with another three-quarters of a billion dollars under active consideration.

Setting aside commercial efforts like those of the California biotech company Geron, consider a few examples of private funding for academic stem-cell research. 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. Weill Cornell Medical College, also in New York City, has established the Ansary Center for Stem Cell Therapeutics with a $15 million grant from philanthropists Shahla and Hushang Ansary.

In California, UCLA has established an Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine with $20 million in funding over the next five years. Stanford University created the Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine, with a goal of $120 million in funding. An anonymous donor gave Johns Hopkins University 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. A grateful patient pledged $25 million over the next 10 years to finance stem-cell research at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

States are also pouring money into stem-cell research. Last November, California voters passed a $3 billion initiative to create a California Institute of Regenerative Medicine that aims to fund stem-cell research at $300 million annually for the next 10 years. New Jersey has allocated $150 million to construct a new stem-cell research center. Connecticut passed legislation authorizing $100 million in spending on both adult and embryonic stem-cell research over the next 10 years. Illinois's 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.

On the drawing boards, a bill proposing to use $10 million from the state's tobacco settlement proceeds for stem-cell research has already been introduced in North Carolina. The Texas House of Representatives approved a measure to sell $41.1 million in bonds for a stem-cell research facility at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. There's a bond measure pending in the Pennsylvania State House. Meanwhile legislation has been 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.

One real question is whether stem-cell researchers even need the Feds. Here is another: Is it possible that President Bush's restrictions on federal funding have generated more funding for this research than would have otherwise been available?

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Moral and Scientific Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.