Sunday, February 13, 2011

Has CIRM Funded Stem Cell Research that Bush Would Have Banned?

When California voters approved creation of an unprecedented, $3 billion stem cell research program more than six years ago, they were told the money would go to finance research that then-President George Bush had banned.

Has that actually happened? Yes, but mainly no, according to a research paper published in Nature Biotechnology in December 2010.

In the first-ever such analysis of CIRM grants, Aaron Levine, assistant professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech, reported that through 2009 only 18 percent of California's dollars went for grants that were "clearly" not eligible for federal funding.

Levine's finding has implications for another, multibillion-dollar bond ballot measure that CIRM Chairman Robert Klein has proposed. The campaign for such a measure would have to address the question of whether the promises of the 2004 ballot initiative that created CIRM have been fulfilled.

CIRM does not offer on its web site figures that can be compared to Levine's calculations. The agency does present some statistics about the amount of funding for embryonic stem cell research, but makes no effort to break out the percentage of grants that would not have received funding during the Bush years.

Levine's numbers on California were part of a broader look at state funding of stem cell research in recent years. He reported that by the end of 2009, six states had awarded nearly 750 grants totalling $1.25 billion. California accounted for $1 billion of the total. Per capita funding amounted to about $1 in Illinois and nearly $28 in California.

In all of the states, percentages were low for research that was clearly ineligible for federal cash under the Bush standards. Levine wrote,
"Most state hESC funding appears to have supported research also eligible for federal funding during the Bush Administration. This finding is surprising, given the explicit intent of several state programs to preferentially support science not eligible for federal funding, but likely reflects the nature of the grant proposals state agencies received, particularly given the number of grants states awarded to scientists relatively new to the field of hESC research.
Levine continued,
"Several factors could explain the relatively small share of grants that went toward clearly ineligible research. Some scientists who wished to pursue this research may have been unable to access the raw materials or acquire the intellectual property rights required to do so. Alternatively, these findings could simply reflect scientific interest. The discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells may, for instance, have reduced scientific interest in the derivation of new hESC lines. Finally, these findings may reflect a preference on the part of scientists to use well-established and well-studied hESC lines. This last explanation may be particularly relevant for new scientists entering the field of hESC research, as using recognized cell lines may give their initial research efforts greater credibility."
In California, another factor enters into funding for Bush-banned research, particularly given the 2004 campaign promises. CIRM makes overt decisions about what to fund. Its RFAs spell out what is acceptable and non-acceptable. The agency could have specified that it would not fund any research that would be eligible for federal funding. But whether that would have been "good science" is another question. CIRM also spent nearly $271 million on new labs at many of its directors' research institutions, diluting the percentage that would be construed as financing Bush-banned research.

We are querying CIRM concerning Levine's statistics.

Levine also reported that the state stem cell research efforts appear to have drawn new scientists into the field, with the largest impact occuring in California. He wrote that 42 percent of those funded in this state appeared to be fresh to the field.

In addition to the Nature Biotechnology piece, Levine has created an online database of state grants that he plans to update regularly. In an email to the California Stem Cell Report, he said,
"While CIRM already makes this information readily accessible, some of the other state programs do not and I hope this database will facilitate comparisons among the various programs and prove to be a useful tool for people interested in state stem cell programs. "


  1. Anonymous8:12 AM

    Separately, note a family of articles in GEN on stems cells, including one by Patricia F. Dimond, Ph.D.

    which begins with the text:

    Even as regulatory agencies express abundant caution, adult stem cell therapies are moving steadily toward the clinic and through development for multiple applications. Investors have become more sophisticated about distinguishing between adult stem cell therapies and embryonic stem cell therapies as well as the potential risks, complications, and costs involved in each.

  2. Don Gibbons/CIRM8:52 AM

    This post has several distortions. First you state as a fact that “only 18 percent” of CIRM grants were not eligible for federal funding and fail to give your readers the researcher’s actual statement on this statistic. Professor Levine stated that he was unable to discern all the cell lines researchers chose to use and wrote: “Thus, the share of grants reported here as clearly ineligible for NIH funding should be viewed as a lower bound.” He assumes the actual number is somewhat higher and CIRM knows of numerous researchers who have added non-NIH cell lines to projects once they were underway.

    You also left out Levine’s statistic showing that the majority of human embryonic stem cell funding is coming from the states, not the feds. For the past three years the human embryonic stem cell research funded by the six state programs has exceeded that of the federal government funding of this work, and the vast majority has been in California.

    What is important for Californians to realize is that the breadth and robustness of the stem cell community CIRM created in California does not exist anywhere in the world. CIRM has made California the hub of one of the most promising technologies—for jobs and products to help mankind—of the 21st century.

    When I was at Harvard Med, the university’s main campus had many stem cell researchers because of the sustained support of private funds through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and donor funds. However, across the Charles River at the Med School’s main campus, we had no stem cell scientists. Young faculty would not tether their careers to a field without a reliable source of funding. CIRM has attracted over 100 faculty level recruits to California from other states and countries and has started several hundreds young researchers down a career in this promising field because of the potential for reliable funding.

  3. CIRM misses the key point about the Georgia Tech study, which is that CIRM has basically failed to live up to the promises of the 2004 election campaign that created the $3 billion enterprise. Supporters said it would fund research that the Bush Administration would not. Most of the $1 billion in CIRM funding, however, has gone elsewhere. How much has actually gone for research banned by Bush? Something in the neighborhood of 18 percent, according to the best available information. We asked Don Gibbons of CIRM whether the agency had compiled its own figures. He replied, "We have not had time to track this data to get a reliable number." Presumably CIRM would have come up with the figures if they believed they would be favorable.


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