A measure on the November ballot would allow California to issue $5.5 billion in bonds to fund stem cell research on treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and dozens of other diseases. Supporters say it’s a needed boost, but opponents say the move will unnecessarily increase California’s budget deficit.
Proposition 14 would allow California to use bonds to fund the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which distributes grants to scientists for stem cell research. The institute was established in 2004, with $3 billion in state funding from voter-approved Proposition 71.
If this November’s proposition fails, proponents of the institute say much of their research will be underfunded and potentially have to stop. Opponents of the measure say the federal government and private industries can fill the gaps.
Stem cells are valuable to scientists because they mature into the cells in bones, muscle, nerves and organs. They can be used to repair damaged tissues, test out new drugs or simply help researchers understand how diseases occur.
Money from the institute is currently funding clinical trials for drugs that could help patients with Parkinson’s, leukemia and many other ailments. The organization says that in the past seven years, they’ve advanced more than 90 clinical trials, completed nearly 3,000 studies and backed two cancer treatments that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Lawrence Goldstein, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego who conducts Alzheimer’s research supported by the institute, said these funds were crucial in launching what’s become a booming field. If Prop 14 fails, he says some of his ongoing projects could be in jeopardy.
“Government financing historically has made a big difference, and it will fund the steps in the clinical trial development process that we just can’t get private industry or the federal government to fund,” he said.
But that money from 2004 is running out. According to a report from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s office, all but $132 million of the Proposition 71 funds had been spent as of October 2019.
The institute asked scientists to stop applying for stem cell research grants in July 2019 because funds were depleted. They did make $5 million available for COVID-19 research grants in light of the pandemic.
While some researchers worry there will be a lack of stem cell funding should the proposition fail, opponents of the measure feel differently. They’re confident the federal government and private industry can pick up the slack.
Jeff Sheehy is an AIDS activist and former San Francisco supervisor who sits on the board of the institute. When the board voted to endorse the proposition, he was the lone vote against it.
“Why does stem cell research suddenly deserve to have the state go into debt to fund it, when it’s amply funded on a federal level?” he said, citing other crucial needs such as housing and education. “It doesn’t make sense. Sure, if we could have everything, I would like a pony and a unicorn and a rainbow.”
The editorial board of The Bakersfield Californian argued that stem cell funding “would be unwise in these economically dire times.” The San Jose Mercury News and East Bay Times boards wrote that “it’s time for California’s stem-cell agency to continue its work as a self-sustaining non-profit or close down and allow federal grants and private business to push the industry forward.”
A Berkeley-based nonprofit called the Center for Genetics and Society filed an argument against the measure, citing concerns about accountability for how the institute spends its funds.
Federal grants for stem cell research have been restricted at various points due to ethical concerns over the use of embryonic stem cells. The Trump administration is currently making efforts to curtail the use of these cells.
Prop 14 supporters say federal funding is not a reliable way to sustain the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s work.
Goldstein, of UC San Diego, says while federal grants or private investments can sometimes be obtained for the early stages of research or to carry a therapy to the finish line, there’s a stretch in the middle — typically when a drug needs to be tested on animals — where funding is very hard to get.
“Yes, there’s lots of money sloshing around, but the ‘valley of death’ is still a real thing,” he said.
And he says the trials currently being supported by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine will likely not be picked up by other funders.
“Most of them will die on the vine,” he said. “They’ll have a hard time getting federal funds since many of them are still early, and there’s simply not enough private financing out there ... the cost rises as you get deeper and deeper into human trials.”
The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates the total fiscal impact of Proposition 14 would be $7.8 billion, including interest on the bonds. They noted that the measure could ultimately save the state some money by reducing the prevalence of disease and creating more cost-effective treatments.
The ballot measure also increases the number of people on the institute’s oversight committee and makes other structural changes.
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