The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is an interesting experiment into publically funded research. It was born from a state referendum in which Proposition 71 was passed on November 2, 2004. It is a state agency which was provided $3 billion in funding for stem cell research at California universities and research institutions. Its remit is to provide grants and loans for stem cell research, research facilities and other vital research opportunities. It funds basic and applied biomedical research focused on developing diagnostics and therapies that will lead to life-saving medical treatments. It is now half way through its initial ten-year mandate and has spent half of its original funds. Has it been successful and is this a potential modal for future research initiatives?
Success is always a difficult thing to quantify. I think most Californians would say that CIRM would be a success if a patient had benefitted. However, as scientists we would all agree that in 5 short years it is unlikely that a patient would have benefitted by now, and it may not have occurred before the initial 10 years is up. The time to take something from basic research into translational can be lengthy.
CIRM’s best hope is that it funds something which has already been through some basic tests and was well on its way into patients when CIRM was born. It had given funds to Geron for its phase 1 clinical trial using embryonic stem cells in spinal cord injury patients. In November, Geron announced that it was halting the trial and leaving stem cell research entirely. This was a massive blow to stem cell research in general, but also for CIRM. The company has since paid back the loan with interest to CIRM, therefore negating any potential negative publicity about CIRM wasting funds.
CIRM has invested heavily in developing infrastructure, training and specially designed buildings and laboratories. Performing stem cell research is an art which requires some very specialized equipment. New buildings have been erected around the state of California specifically for this purpose.
This endeavor has brought world class researchers into the state and created jobs. Students are now learning cutting edge research techniques at their institutions and will hopefully continue their studies in this exciting area. The research funded by CIRM is incredibly broad including HIV/Aids; Neurological Disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease, Huntington’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease; blood disorders like Sickle Cell Disease; eye diseases such as Macular Degeneration; spinal injuries; and various cancers. There are few funding agencies who can claim as broad a range of research interests, and it is clearly due to the vast curative potential of stem cells.
CIRM has funded a number of projects which would not have otherwise been funded. The use of human embryonic stem cells in research remains controversial. Therefore, obtaining federal funding is difficult. Many of these projects are now showing their first results. It would be a real shame if the research needs to end once the initial tenure and funding have ended. CIRM is a fabulous resource which has helped put California at the forefront of stem cell research, and once clinical trials begin will directly benefit Californian residents. It is unlikely that CIRM will receive another bond measure due to the severe budget shortfalls California is facing. Therefore, it must find another way to extend its life.
I believe that the CIRM “project” has been a very exciting experiment and will eventually pay back in dividends. However, this research cannot be rushed . Many people remember the problems with Thalidomide. It was prescribed for morning sickness in the late 1950s. By the early 1960s, however, it led to birth defects and was withdrawn. We do not want to recreate tragedies such as this by trying to run before we can walk. Each step needs to be rigorously tested to ensure that there are no major side effects before moving onto the next. We have no idea what may occur when stem cells are reintroduced into humans, it may be amazing, but there may be unexpected responses as well.
As long as we define success as the advancement of knowledge into stem cells, and not by the successful treatment of patients then CIRM has been one. It has certainly given California a massive boost into this research area which should continue into the future. Due to the current economic climate, I do not see any state emulating this project for a while but, once things have stabilized, I hope that others will see the value of heavily investing in scientific research. Not necessarily in stem cell research, but there are many other areas which are just as “hot” right now. We must invest if we are to maintain our standing at the forefront of the World’s research endeavor.
Disclaimer: The author is the Associate Director of the Stem Cell Training Grant at her institution which is funded by CIRM. These views are the authors own and in no way reflect the views of either her institute or CIRM.