SAN DIEGO – Pro-life groups, which are eager to end research that destroys human embryos, are taking heart that funding decisions in two of the nation’s most socially liberal states are going their way.
“Money talks,” said Gene Tarne, author of papers for the Charlotte Lozier Institute that find that the bulk of stem cell funding grants in California and Maryland are moving toward “ethical” research that doesn’t use human embryos.
The shift looks like a sea change from when state funding strongly favored research from embryonic stem cells over “adult” stem cells, which are taken from the placenta, umbilical cord and some mature tissues and do not kill human embryos.
However, the hunt for cures for diseases, along with federal and private funding for embryonic stem cell research, virtually guarantees that embryonic stem cell research and the moral battles over it are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
The World Stem Cell Summit this week in San Diego promises to share updates on a “complete 360 view of the stem-cell field” and says no type of research should be excluded.
“The patient community is not so concerned about the source of the cell — it is all about developing effective treatments,” said Bernard Siegel, executive director of Genetics Policy Institute in Florida, which hosts the summit.
The summit will honor South Dakota philanthropist T. Denny Sanford for his $100 million investment in a California stem cell research center. All kinds of stem cell research projects are expected to be funded at the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center at the University of California at San Diego.
Meanwhile, a Kansas stem cell research center that, by law, won’t use stem cells culled from human embryos also is taking off.
“This is the beginning,” Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said Nov. 23, when the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center held its inaugural conference. “We are catching it right as the field is really starting to burgeon,” he said, according to the Kansas Health Institute News Service.
The center — approved in April by the Kansas Legislature and Mr. Brownback — is “a visionary move” to “support science that can actually lead to a lot of new therapies and potentially change the face of medicine,” said Dr. Buddhadeb Dawn, director of the center, which is housed at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City.
Excluding embryonic stem cell research is not an impediment, Dr. Dawn said.
“Adult stem cells are the ones that have been shown to be effective for patient treatment,” he said.
The hunt for cures
Stem cells excite scientists because they are regenerative — self-renewing — and have the potential to be grown into any type of cell. This has led many people to believe stem cell therapies one day will cure or treat many conditions, including blindness, cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and spinal cord injuries.
The dispute in stem cell research is over cells taken from human embryos, the stage of human development that follows fertilization.
Some scientists view stem cells taken from human embryos as superior, “master cells” with vast potential for cures and therapies. But pro-life groups and their allies denounce such research because the stem cell extraction process destroys the “person” in embryonic form.
In 2001, President George W. Bush decided to restrict federal funding to existing embryonic stem cell lines. His opponents in California responded by promoting and winning a voter initiative to provide $3 billion over 10 years to stem cell research, especially the kind that uses human embryos.
In 2007, the newly created California Institute for Regenerative Medicine kept its promise and spent $121 million on human embryonic stem cell research. Of 100 grants the institute issued in its first year, not one went to a project that used adult stem cells, Mr. Tarne said in his July 2012 report for the Lozier institute.
By 2012, though, the institute’s funding had shifted course — it gave 15 grants, worth about $50 million, to non-embryonic research projects and six grants, worth $19 million, to embryonic research projects.
Mr. Tarne found a similar pattern in Maryland, another state with an active stem cell research community.
In 2007, the Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission funded 11 projects that used human embryos and four that used adult stem cells. This year, though, the Maryland commission funded only one embryonic stem cell project and 28 non-embryonic projects.
Maryland’s grants can be seen as “an important bellwether” for the research choices, as the state is home to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, a leading site for stem cell research, Mr. Tarne said.
The two states’ growing preferences for “ethical” stem cell projects reflect the scientific community’s belief that “the best hope for rapid medical advances lies with morally unproblematic alternatives,” said Chuck Donovan, president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, which is the research arm of the Susan B. Anthony List.
“It’s a matter of starting to recognize that where all the ‘return’ is — especially if we’re talking about helping a patient — is in adult stem cells,” said David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council and a member of the advisory board for the Kansas adult stem cell research center.
“It validates what we have been saying for years, which is ‘the ethical is the successful’ and that’s where we should put all our resources,” said Mr. Prentice, a researcher in cell biology who will discuss the stem cell issue at a Family Research Council event Dec. 11.
All cells pursued
The institute has “quite a lot of projects” on embryonic stem cells and their derivatives, as well as some using adult stem cells, he told The Washington Times.
“It just takes time for some stem cell types to sort of evolve into usefulness, clinically,” Mr. Trounson said. “So we are on a natural evolution, if you like, using the best cells.”
“It is no longer about the type of cell,” said Mr. Siegel, founder and chairman of the ninth annual World Stem Cell Summit, which expects to draw 1,000 scientists and others associated with stem cell research to San Diego from Wednesday through Friday.
“Each cell type has different uses for different purposes,” said Mr. Siegel, referring to embryonic, adult and induced pluripotent stem cells, in which adult stem cells are reprogrammed to act like desired cells.
Some cells are better to understand the root causes of disease, some might be ready for cell transplant and others may be used as tools for drug discovery, Mr. Siegel said.
“We need them all,” he said.
In Maryland, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission declined to comment on the Lozier report. The commission held its sixth annual research symposium Tuesday at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Several of its presentations were on induced pluripotent stem cell technologies.
Separately, the National Institutes of Health remains a major player in all kinds of stem cell research: In fiscal 2012, it issued $146.5 million for embryonic stem cell research and $504 million for non-embryonic projects; both were record-breaking amounts for the agency.