Major medical breakthroughs take time, but as public money for stem cell research is spent down, the pressure to cure something is going up.
The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is about to enter a crucial stage in stem cell research, going to clinical trials. The most promising experiments could cure diabetes, HIV, sickle cell anemia, and blindness in the elderly. "You don't really get to find out whether the potential of the treatment is really going to be effective until you start to treat the patients," Alan Trounson explained.
CIRM's board is discussing how much to allocate for that trial phase. Through the 2004 voter-approved bonds under Proposition 71, it has already given out or spent half of the $3 billion, but despite the medical promise, there's little to show for it beyond basic research and several high-tech labs. Still, the agency says the breakthroughs will come over the next few years, way ahead of the rest of the world. "This would all be happening in California, all driven by this Proposition 71 money," Trounson said.
The bond money is expected to last only several more years. One option is to ask voters to approve more bonds, something taxpayer groups oppose. "When people think about bond financing, they think about a bridge, a school, a canal. But, stem cell research is just kind of out there," said Jon Coupal with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
Rancher Diana Souza says it would be a shame to stop public funding of stem cell research. Through clinical trials at UC Davis Medical Center not financed by Prop 71 money, she says stem cells helped restore full use of her severely fractured arm. "I hope they can continue doing this because it is a miracle. It does work. And, I have a good arm to prove it," she said.
CIRM's transition plan, already submitted to Gov. Brown and lawmakers, assumes no more taxpayer support after the bond money runs out. The agency is also thinking about becoming a non-profit and letting others carry on the work.