Share This Article:A stem cell research center at UC Davis. Courtesy California Institute for Regenerative MedicineBy Barbara Feder Ostrov | CalMatters

For the second time in 16 years, California voters will decide the fate of the states multi-billion dollar stem cell research program that established the state as a worldwide leader.

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How the times have changed.

In November, as the pandemic drags on, Proposition 14 asks voters to spend nearly $8 billion to continue the program during a period when the research environment has significantly evolved and coronavirus has battered the states budget.

Thebond measurewould approve $5.5 billion in bonds to keep the states stem cell research agency running and grants flowing to California universities and companies.

At least $1.5 billion would be earmarked for brain and central nervous system diseases like Alzheimers and Parkinsons. The overall cost of the bonds and their interest totals about $7.8 billion,according tothe state legislative analyst. The state would pay about $260 million annually for 30 years, or about 1 percent of Californias annual budget.

Proposition 14 is essentially a repeat with a bigger price tag and a few tweaks ofProposition 71, which California voters approved in 2004 after then-President George W. Bush prohibited, on religious grounds, all federal funding of any stem cell research using human embryos.

The institute has nearly used up its original funding, so Prop. 71s author, real estate investor and attorney Robert N. Klein II, led a new effort to get Prop. 14 on the November ballot. That groundbreaking measure authorized $3 billion in state bonds to create the states stem cell research agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and fund grants for research into treatments for Alzheimers disease, cancer, spinal cord injuries and other diseases.

This time, embryonic stem cell research is in a much different place, with federal funding no longer blocked and more funding from the biotech industry.

Voters will want to consider what Californias previous investment in stem cell research has accomplished. Its a nuanced track record.

While many scientific experts agree that Prop 71 was a bold social innovation that successfully bolstered emerging stem cell research, some critics argue that the institutes grantmaking was plagued by conflicts of interest and did not live up to the promises of miracle cures that Prop. 71s supporters made years ago. Although the agency is funded with state money, its overseen by its own board and not by the California governor or lawmakers.

The agency had done a very good job of setting priorities for stem cell research, including research using human embryos, and doling out $300 million annually to build up California as a regenerative medicine powerhouse, according to a 2013evaluationby the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

But the report also found that because the institutes board is made up of scientists from universities and biotech firms likely to apply for grants, board members had almost unavoidable conflicts of interest.

Because human stem cells can develop into many types of cells, including blood, brain, nerve and muscle cells, scientists have long looked to them for potential treatments for currently incurable diseases and injuries. Researchers use two types of stem cells: embryonic stem cells, derived from unused human embryos created through in vitro fertilization, and adult stem cells, which are harder to work with but in some cases can be coaxed in a lab into behaving more like embryonic stem cells.

From the start, stem cell research has beenethically charged and politically controversialbecause human embryos are destroyed in some types of studies. Federal restrictions on the research have waxed and waned, depending on which political party holds power. While former President Bush restricted federal money for embryonic stem cell research, former President Obama removed those restrictions.

The Trump administration hasrestrictedgovernment research involving fetal tissue but not embryonic stem cells. However, anti-abortion lawmakershave called onthe President to once again end federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

California-funded research has led to onestem cell treatmentfor a form of Severe Combined Immunodeficiency known as the bubble baby disease. Children with the rare disease dont make enough of a key enzyme needed for a normal immune system. Without treatment, they can die from the disease if not kept in a protective environment. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is now reviewing the treatment but has not yet approved it for widespread use.

Although many of the agencys early grants were for basic science, the institute also has supported 64 clinical trials of treatments for many types of cancer, sickle cell disease, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, kidney disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonlyknown as Lou Gehrigs disease.

A June 2020analysisby University of Southern California health policy researchers estimated that taxpayers initial $3 billion investment in the research institute helped create more than 50,000 jobs and generated $10 billion for the states economy.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has endorsed Proposition 14, and other supporters include the Regents of the University of California, the California Democratic Party, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, patient advocacy groups like the March of Dimes, and some local politicians and chambers of commerce.

Supporters have raisedmore than $8.5 million, including about $2 million from billionaire Dagmar Dolby, to pass the measure, according to California Secretary of State campaign finance reports.

The passage of Proposition 71 helped save my life, Sandra Dillon, a blood cancer patient, wrote in a San Diego Union-Tribunecommentarysupporting Proposition 14. She wrote that she had benefited from a drug developed with Institute-funded research that has beendesignatedby the FDA as a breakthrough therapy.

It is unimaginable to think that Californians would vote to discontinue this amazing effort I dont know where I would be or what condition I would be in if it wasnt for the investment Californians made nearly two decades ago.

Lawrence Goldstein, a UC San Diego professor of cellular and molecular medicine and stem cell researcher, said the grants were instrumental in furthering his research on treatments for Alzheimers disease and that Prop. 14 will help create new jobs. The agency has funded a great deal of very important stem cell medical research thats already produced terrific results and has the prospect of saving many more lives in the decade to come, he said.

Opponents include one member of the institutes board and a nonprofit that advocates for privacy in genetic research. They contend that the proposition seeks too much money and does not sufficiently address the conflicts of interest that cropped up after Prop. 71 was passed. They also note that private funding, including venture capital, for stem cell research has grown in recent years. Opponents had raised only $250 by late September, from a single contribution by theCalifornia Pro Life Council.

The editorial boards of some of Californias biggest newspapers also have opposed the measure, including theLos Angeles Times, theOrange County Register, theSan Francisco Chronicleand theSan Jose Mercury News/East Bay Times. TheFresno Bee,Modesto Bee, andSan Luis Obispo Tribunenewspaper editorial boards support Prop 14.

Jeff Sheehy, the only institute board member not to support Proposition 14, told CalMatters that the research environment has changed since voters initially approved state funding for stem cell research in 2004 and that California should prioritize other needs like education, health care, and housing.

I think the agencys done good work, but this was never planned to be funded forever with debt, Sheehy said. At this point the state cant afford it; were looking at a huge deficit.

CalMattersis a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how Californias state Capitol works and why it matters.

Proposition 14 Aims to Keep California at Worldwide Center of Stem Cell Research was last modified: October 18th, 2020 by Editor

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