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Stem Cell Research's Reversal of Fortune

The conventional wisdom among the scientific community and the public is that the present federal US policy on stem cell research, which provides National Institutes of Health funding only for research on stem cell lines developed before August 2001, has significantly reduced funding for stem cell research and diminished the translation of this platform technology to important therapies.

By | October 10, 2005

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© James E. Hernandez

The conventional wisdom among the scientific community and the public is that the present federal US policy on stem cell research, which provides National Institutes of Health funding only for research on stem cell lines developed before August 2001, has significantly reduced funding for stem cell research and diminished the translation of this platform technology to important therapies. But there's another side to this argument: that the present US policy has actually increased stem cell funding and research worldwide, thus mobilizing state governments, industry, and philanthropy to fund this promising technology.

PROBLEMS AND PROGRESS

The NIH has supported significant stem cell research, especially related to postbirth and adult stem cells, including bone marrow, cord blood, peripheral blood, and adipose tissue. It is likely that research in nonembryonic stem cells has been facilitated by Bush's policy because it has provided more federal funding for US researchers. It should be noted that even if the US legislative branch allows NIH funding for all human embryonic stem cell research, that without extra NIH funds for this research it is likely that the peer-review system will cut funding for other important NIH-sponsored research.

This is especially critical at a time when a flat budget is making it difficult for many researchers to receive NIH funding. The additional grants for human embryonic stem cell research will further dilute overall funding and continue to reduce the percent of funded grants. Overall, this will probably reduce the number of nonembryonic stem cell grants funded. Therefore, it is important to provide increased funding to the NIH if new embryonic stem cell research is approved.

That said, the current policy has created a state-by-state movement unprecedented in medical research. Most prominently, the passage of California's proposition 71 provides $3 billion to that state's stem cell research institutes. Although lawsuits from opponents to the initiative have delayed dispersal except for a recent set of $40 million grants, other states such as Connecticut, Illinois, and Wisconsin have followed the lead and begun to provide funding for researchers. The trend continues to develop at a rapid pace.

At $300 million per year for 10 years, the California initiative alone would dwarf the $24.3 million provided by the NIH last year under current guidelines. Furthermore, private and public universities and institutes within several of these pro-stem cell states have boosted their stem cell faculty and research enterprise by using internal and philanthropic funding mechanisms.

Stem cell research in companies may also have increased because of US policy. Many established companies have stem cell programs, which may be partially fueled by the concept that, with less federally funded academic research, more opportunity exists to develop intellectual property with in-house inventors or university researchers willing to take industrial funds and help translate research. In addition, many university faculty have had to increasingly look to the public sector for venture funding for their human embryonic stem cell research, thereby starting a number of university spinoff companies or out-licensing opportunities.

<p>Paul R. Sanberg</p>

With the same philosophy as some commercial enterprises, many countries have taken advantage of the perceived reduction of US funding by focusing their efforts. Indeed, these countries may become competitive with the United States or even take the lead. The United Kingdom has plans to spend $175 million per year. Not surprisingly, many European, Asian, and South American countries are receiving significant media attention both for their stances and their results. And progress isn't necessarily measured in hundreds of millions of dollars. The South Korean group that has produced the most striking breakthroughs in human embryonic stem cell and cloning research has been supported by roughly $11 million in government grants. This continues to fuel a national pride and provides more support for native researchers. The quality and diversity of results presented at an international meeting in Asia so impressed me that I felt compelled to draft this opinion.

BALANCING ACT

It's unreasonable to suggest that politics doesn't play a significant role in medical research. Why else would such strong disease foundations and patient advocacy groups exist in the United States? While I don't condone our administration's policies that hinder the development of important therapies, what has occurred in the United States and abroad in the past few years suggests that stem cell research has received more funding and more attention from all sources, than if the president had lifted all restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research.

That said, NIH funding does provide another level of scientific review and more open dissemination of results. The ideal situation from a science point of view is for the NIH to be involved in the development of viable stem cell therapies, whether they are based on cells of embryonic or adult origin. From a global perspective, however, it's hard to ignore the fact that federal limitations have caused and may continue to accelerate increased stem cell funding and research through other means.

Paul R. Sanberg psanberg@hsc.usf.edu is a distinguished professor at the University of South Florida College of Medicine in Tampa, Fla., and the director of its Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair.

He can be contacted atpsanberg@hsc.usf.edu.

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