California stem cell program: How much progress since its "C-" grade?
At the start of 2006, the Center for Genetics and Society released a progress report on the first year of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), calling for the resignation of Robert Klein, controversial chair of CIRM's governing board, and giving the $3 billion agency an overall grade of C-.
During the rest of the year, as CIRM developed several sets of key policies, CGS and other public interest groups closely monitored its proposed standards and pressured for improvements. CIRM's research standards [PDF], on which CGS made numerous comments and suggestions, improved in a number of areas. Unfortunately, they still lack significant enforcement mechanisms. Its intellectual property policies, which are yet to be finalized, currently require grant recipients to share a portion of any profits with the state and to implement plans for affordability. But the health care and biotech industries are working to weaken these provisions. And whatever policies are adopted, enforcement will again be a key issue.
CIRM's scientific strategic plan, released in November, projects what Californians can expect the ten-year program to achieve. Its language and plans stand in sharp contrast to the overheated promotional claims about imminent cures that were used to pass the voter initiative that created the agency back in 2004.
The Sacramento Bee ended the year with an editorial call for greater transparency from CIRM: "If institute leaders could…come clean about internal conflicts, they could go a long way toward securing the trust they have risked squandering the last two years."
Public funds and conflicts of interest mark stem cell programs in other states
Three other states implemented plans this year for public funding of embryonic stem cell research. New Jersey became the first state to award grants in December 2005, and its legislature is currently considering a $500 million plan that would need voter approval. Implementing a 2005 law, Connecticut's $100 million program issued its first round of grants and, like California, prioritized moving rapidly ahead of proceeding responsibly.
Maryland passed a more modest law, allocating $15 million. But in a recurring pattern, the program is now struggling with how a board dominated by representatives of likely grant recipients can oversee the program without conflicts.
Although embryonic stem cell research would benefit from public funding, it's increasingly clear that a patchwork of policies implement by poorly prepared state governments is a poor solution. A leading advocate for increased spending on the research said, "It is quite inefficient to have every state trying to figure out their own way of how to review grants, spend the money and monitor what the researchers are doing."
The Bush veto and the new Congress
In September, President Bush issued the first veto of his presidency by blocking legislation that would have loosened the restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research that he implemented in 2001. Congress failed to override the veto, and as a result, Democrats in a number of midterm races tried to use stem cell research as a wedge issue. Throughout the summer and fall, there was much less attention to the issue than had been anticipated. But two weeks before the election, ads by Michael J. Fox catapulted it back onto the radar screen.
The incoming Democratic Congressional leadership plans to introduce a bill similar to the one Bush vetoed in the earliest days of the new session. But it appears that the president will again refuse to sign it, and that there are still too few votes for an override.
False and real steps toward stem cells without embryo destruction
The struggling and controversial biotechnology company Advanced Cell Technologies made headlines in August when it claimed to have isolated embryonic stem cell lines without destroying embryos. The claims turned out to be overblown; as several news articles noted, this is not the first time the company has been charged with irregularities.
Another effort to produce embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos received much less attention. In August, researchers at Kyoto University in Japan identified factors that appear to be able to cause adult stem cells in mice to revert to a more embryonic-like state.