State-funded stem cell research matters

The National Institutes of Health has enforced three distinct federal funding policies for human embryonic stem-cell research through the administrations of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. In 2001, George W. Bush placed restrictions on the use of federal funds for human embryonic stem-cell research, leading some state governments to fund the research themselves. California established the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and other states followed with various funding mechanisms of their own.

Though Barack Obama repealed the ban in 2009, many states have sustained their initiatives, among them California, Connecticut, Maryland and New York. These states committed varying levels of funding for research activities for 10 to 11 years. California, for example, invests about $300 million per year in CIRM, more than doubling the $222 million provided by the NIH for stem cell research.

Many of these state programs are reaching the end of their initial funding commitments. To understand the effect of the programs, a recent report looked at whether state funding affected publication trends in hESC research. The authors wanted to know if state funding affected the likelihood that a paper published on the subject would have an author from one of those states. They found that 45 percent of journal articles published in the U.S. on hESC had at least one author from California in 2010. Connecticut increased its share of hESC publications to 6 percent in 2013 (from none at all in 2002) after adopting a state funding program in 2006. In contrast, Maryland’s share of hESC publications was at 22 percent in 2004 but fell to 10 percent in 2008 and has been steady since.

Some state governments seem to appreciate the value of investing in scientific research. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a presidential candidate, called the Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission a “critical program” that “contributes to Maryland’s reputation as premier destination for life science research. The talent and promise of 21st century world-class medicine is being formed right here in our backyard.”

State-funded stem cell research returned to the forefront recently when the NIH placed a moratorium on new funding for human–animal chimera research. This work involves the introduction of hESCs into early-stage embryos from nonhuman vertebrates. Despite the moratorium on federal funding, CIRM is funding the work of Hiromitsu Nakauchi at Stanford University. Nakauchi is trying to grow human pancreas in goat or pig embryos using the hESC chimera technique and hopes to be able to grow other organs for human transplant.

Whoever wins the presidency next year will have the opportunity to determine federal policy on future stem cell research. But, regardless of federal policy, state governments may continue to fund the programs to attract the best talent to their universities and institutions and to accelerate delivery on stem-cell-based therapeutics.

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