California Today: California Today: Waiting on the Promise of Stem Cells

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Stem cell research is conducted at Stanford University, which has been a recipient of funding from California’s stem cell agency. Credit Alex di Suvero for The New York Times

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More than a decade ago, Californians made a $3 billion wager on the healing potential of stem cell research.

Today, with that money projected to start running out in the next few years, what does the state have to show for it?

First, a recap.

In 2004, voters approved Proposition 71, a bond measure amounting to $6 billion with interest, which created a stem cell agency to help fund research. It was in part a response to limits on federal funding for stem cell research imposed by the government over concerns about destroying human embryos.

Campaigners at the time suggested the research could yield cures for afflictions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and cancer.

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The measure passed with 59 percent in support, and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, based in Oakland, was born.

Some of what’s happened since then:

• More than 750 grants distributed

A dozen research facilities constructed

• Roughly 2,000 scholarly papers published

More than 2,400 students and young scientists trained

• About 30 projects that include clinical trials funded

Still, the agency has yet to finance a therapy approved for commercial use.

Critics say that’s led to public disappointment because the campaign for Proposition 71 oversold how quickly treatments might emerge. Stem cell research is a young field, scientists say — these things take decades, not years.

But stand by, they say.

“The biggest leaps in stem cell applications are yet to come,” said Ken Zaret, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Some critics have also raised alarm over conflicts of interest at the stem cell agency that have allowed money to flow to board members’ institutions.

Few would argue for an end to the research itself.

But if California taxpayers are asked to step up again, the governance problems must be fixed first, said Marcy Darnovsky, who runs the nonprofit Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley.

“I don’t think they can just see it as a do-over,” she added.

Jonathan Thomas, the stem cell agency chairman, said he was trying to meet looming funding challenges with philanthropic support and industry partnerships. (Complicating matters: The agency’s president, C. Randal Mills, unexpectedly announced on Tuesday that he was leaving for a new job.)

At the same time, Robert Klein, the real estate developer who spearheaded Proposition 71, is eyeing the possibility of another voter initiative.

It would appear on the 2018 ballot. The ask this time? $5 billion.

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Source: New York Times

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