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Stem Cell Research in California: Providing a Lesson for other States?

Written by on Monday, February 11th, 2008

The California Stem Cell Report reported on a story run in today’s Boston Globe, in which the paper characterized the “$3 billion stem cell research effort in the Golden State” as a “lesson” and a “reality check” for Massachusetts.

According to the Boston Globe:

The slow rate of progress serves as a reality check for Massachusetts and other states that have followed California’s lead by placing big bets on medical research. Texas voters approved a $3 billion commitment to cancer research in November. New York has set aside $600 million for stem cell work. And later this month, Massachusetts lawmakers are expected to vote on Governor Deval Patrick’s $1 billion life sciences initiative, which is primarily targeted for research.

The Boston Globe next compares and contrasts the proposed Massachusetts bill with the California initiative:

Patrick’s proposal differs in some key ways from California’s. For instance, it sets aside $250 million in tax incentives to encourage companies to expand, something that could yield immediate results. It also allocates money for workforce training. And unlike California, the Massachusetts research funding is not restricted to stem cell research. . . .

[A]s in other states, the bulk of the bill is related to life sciences research, which typically takes time to generate results. Specifically, $250 million is reserved for grants for research, fellowships, or workforce training. Another $500 million would support public research and education facilities, including a stem cell bank to be housed at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester and a research center focused on RNA interference, an area pioneered by UMass researcher Craig Mello.

Unlike the Massachusetts proposal, California’s stem cell plan didn’t come from politicians. It was the brainchild of Robert Klein, a well-connected California lawyer and low-income housing developer. Klein said he got involved as a patient advocate: His son has diabetes, and his mother has Alzheimer’s disease. When federal officials decided to limit funding for embryonic research, Klein thought California could help fill the gap. Embryonic stem cell research holds immense promise because stem cells can potentially morph into any other kind of cell, making it possible for them to replace other cells that have been damaged.  Instead of going through the Legislature, Klein organized a ballot initiative, taking the proposal directly to voters. . . .  In the end, 59 percent of voters approved the measure.

The Boston Globe article goes on to describe the controversies surrounding the California initiative and to explain that the the initiative to date has had little–if any–real impact.

The California Stem Cell Report responded to the Boston Globe article, stating:

The Boston piece downplayed the impact of CIRM’s efforts, perhaps a reflection of a parochial East Coast perspective. Pumping money into stem cell research at the rate of $20,000-plus an hour, however, is no small achievement, even though it does not measure up to the perceptions created by the campaign rhetoric surrounding Prop. 71 more than three years ago.

There is little doubt that the Boston Globe’s perspective is a cautionary one on the value of investing public funds into stem cell research.  At the very least the Boston Globe has emphasized the fact that the value of the investment will be realized in the long-term rather than the short-term, which is certainly a fair point to make.  At worst, the Boston Globe may in fact be as the California Stem Cell Report stated exhibiting a certain degree of  “East Coast parochialism.”

In truth, I think that this article is a reflection of all of the above.  As a relocated Southerner from the real South–not Southern California–I have to say that it was no great surprise that California would be the pioneer in this area.  Not only is the state very progressive in a variety of ways and historically very supportive of life sciences, but it is also more inclined than many states to allocate taxpayer dollars to fund politically-correct projects.  Is this at heart a reflection of the fundamental difference between East Coast and West Coast perspectives?  Of course it is.  But which view is correct?  It depends.  Utlimately, isn’t the measure of success going to be what the CIRM does for California and what kind of results in the field the CIRM achieves? Thus, I would argue that everyone is correct here.

Having said this, did anyone honestly think that the CIRM would have achieved any tangible results by now? Does anyone really need cautionary words of wisdom on how rapidly stem cell  research results are likely to be achieved?  I suspect that even most elementary school students would have expected it to take a while for the CIRM to achieve any measurable results.  Is it possible that the Boston Globe is truly concerned that its readers will get ahead of themselves, expecting the results to be literally evident overnight?  I somehow doubt it.


Comment from Don C. Reed
Time February 13, 2008 at 2:52 am


As someone who tries to attend every CIRM meeting, I am continually amazed and delighted at the hard work being done and the progress accomplished.

I never feel more proud to be an American than when, at the beginning of every Independent Citizens Oversight Committee, the words are said:

“Please stand if you are able, and join us in the pledge of allegiance.”

When we sit down, the work begins, as 29 top leaders and the public struggle to work out the best way possible to focus California dollars against the incurable diseases and conditions which afflict America, and the world.

It is grueling struggle, with medical language, intellectual property rights, and every issue with its own complicated vocabulary. But the men and women on the board are united in purpose: they are fighting for cure with every fiber of their beings.

Those who expect instant results from medical research are like the child who plants a seed and then digs it up ten minutes later to see it is a tree yet.

We are all impatient, eager to see results.

But no state– and no nation– is doing more than California to advance the cause of stem cell research.

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