Assessing the scientific results of California’s 2004 stem cell research initiative

In 2004, California voters approved $3 billion of new funding for stem cell research, especially targeted at the controversial embryonic stem cells.  Proponents predicted the game-changing scientific research would develop effective treatments and potential cures for patients suffering from the likes of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease, and dozens of other severe ailments.

However, nearly six years later, “there have been no cures, no therapies, and little progress” according to Investor’s Business Daily.  Since Prop 71 passed in 2004, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has doled out over $1 billion in research funding, but according to Sally Lehrman at the Los Angeles Times:  

     “..there have been no “miracles” – no paralyzed people abandoning their wheelchairs or diabetics throwing away their needles.  There hasn’t even been a human trial of embryonic stem cells…” 

As a result, the Investor’s Business Daily wrote, “So supporters are embracing research they once opposed.”  Last October, the Institute distributed $230 million in fresh funding to 14 different research teams.  Only 4, or 29%, are working with embryonic stem cells, while the other 71% are focused on various forms of adult stem cell research.  Adult stem cell research “..not only has treated people with real results; it also does not come with the moral baggage ESCR does.” 

Some staunch proponents of embryonic stem cell research have felt discouraged by the lack of tangible results.  But, Sally Lehrman proposes that an overzealous media artificially elevated expectations for a scientific process that is likely to require many more years of vigorous research and testing.  She writes: 

     “But the truth is that science is a long and arduous process, and “breakthroughs” rest on a foundation of basic science. Most of the money spent so far has gone into new labs, training, tools and technologies and basic research, building blocks that are necessary precursors to discovery.” 

     “One day, treatments based on embryonic stem cells may be able to correct any number of life-threatening and disabling conditions. But this prospect is not a tidy matter of changing a few switches in cells and then popping them back into a malfunctioning part.” 

She continues: 

     “It’s no surprise that the initiative’s proponents made big promises: They had something to sell. But instant miracles are uncommon in science, and journalists should do a better job making that clear. We need to highlight the uncertainties in science and, in medical quests such as stem cell therapies, emphasize the baby steps involved that in fact are big leaps…” 

While supporters may continue to advocate the vast potential of future embryonic stem cell research, current trends appear to largely falsify the predictions made by this model in 2004.  Instead, adult stem cell research has proven a far more cost-effective and efficacious scientific enterprise. 

If science is supposed to be an objective, testable, and results-oriented endeavor, then at this time, non-embryonic stem cell research retains the clear advantage nearly six years into the project.