California: the State of Stem Cell Funding

As President Bush vetoed a bill that would have loosened restrictions on embryonic stem cell research Wednesday afternoon, many who see stem cell therapies as solutions to ailments ranging from diabetes to paralysis to cancer are looking for another means of funding for what they regard as a critical area of inquiry.

While several states have passed resolutions to direct funding toward embryonic stem cell research, none have committed as much as California -- a state many see as the model for the immediate future of human embryonic stem cell research.

But for California, the road from approval to actual funding has been a rocky one.

California voters approved Proposition 71, a $3 billion bond for stem cell research, back in November 2004.

While most of that money was intended to go toward embryonic stem cell research, California researchers have yet to see a cent of that money. Legal challenges from groups opposed to stem cells and groups concerned about the management of the funds tied it up in the courts.

Subsequently, researchers have had to either rely on a combination of private funding and a $150 million dollar loan taken out by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, or delay their research entirely.

"We're ready, but we aren't able to begin until we have grant dollars in hand," said Arnold Kriegstein, director of the program in Developmental and Stem Cell Biology at the University of California in San Francisco.

He said that 17 labs at UCSF are awaiting funding to begin embryonic stem cell research, but none have been able to start this research because the checks from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the body set up to distribute stem cell funds in the state, have not arrived yet.

The only money the university had received so far, Kriegstein said, came in the form of a training grant, which used funds from Schwarzenegger's loan.

But Kriegstein said that he expects state funding to arrive within the next few weeks -- an assertion backed by CIRM spokesman Dale Carlson.

Private Sector Flexes Monetary Muscles

Further downstate, at the University of California in San Diego, Karl Willert, director of the Stem Cell Core Facility, said that research had only been able to get underway because of private donors and extra money given by the university in anticipation of the eventual grant of state funding.

"People were taking their chances, but the chances were that the courts were going to rule in favor of CIRM," he said.

But some feel that the lack of federal approval and the legal challenges from embryonic stem cell research opponents gives even more ammunition to those appealing to private donors for support.

"As President Bush vetoes this bill…it is going to provide more funding for state research," said Michael Bellomo, the author of "The Stem Cell Divide."

Bellomo said that Bush's vetoing of stem cell bills had "set off a string of firecrackers," with states who promote stem cell research like Massachusetts, Maryland and Missouri outbidding each other in an attempt to draw more scientists.

But while other states are getting underway, California remains by far the biggest financial backer of stem cell research in the United States and possibly the world -- a claim made by CIRM which Bellomo said would be difficult to verify because some other nations are unclear about their exact spending.

In his book, Bellomo likened California's response to the federal veto to a hypothetical situation where President John F. Kennedy had rejected the idea of putting a man on the moon and Texas decided to fund NASA on its own.

Following the Money

But as California proceeds with stem cells, researchers indicate that the current system of states going against the grain of federal approval will lead to plenty of waste.

Kriegstein said that at UCSF, researchers are forced to account for all materials they use to ensure that nothing paid for by a federal grant is used for embryonic stem cell research on cell lines created after August 2001.

In addition to the need for people to spend time accounting for everything used, Kriegstein said that the researchers must often purchase equipment other labs already have in order to comply with the federal guidelines.

And the funding itself has also been a source of concern. Ted Costa of Public Advocate, one of the groups that sued to block funding from CIRM, said that while he is not opposed to embryonic stem cell research and wishes the researchers luck, the funding does not have enough oversight from state representatives.

Bellomo himself said that while he is "pro-research," he questions how Californians will feel about such a large expenditure when many of the advances touted by embryonic stem cell research advocates are unlikely to come before the current bond expires.

But for now, California is ready to get its research underway.

"Scientists in California know there will be $3 billion available to them over the next 10 years," Carlson said. "Federal policy discourages young scientists from coming into the field... In California, that's no longer an issue."