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The 3 Billion Dollar Debate

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Starting soon, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which will dole out roughly $300 million a year for 10 years in grants and loans to public and private entities pursuing stem cell studies. There are now fears that the money that tax payers are forking over may possibly be used for private profit instead of resulting in the guarantee that the public who funded the initiative will see benefits from any medical breakthroughs.

Some critics are also saying that the money might have been better spent by directing the money to more “mature” medical practices.

The sponsors of the measure respond that it was carefully drawn to eliminate potential conflicts of interest, although they say that many of the rules governing its conduct have not been written. The final authority as to where to distribute the money resides with the oversight panel, which will include representatives from most of the state’s major medical schools, members of nonprofit research institutes, executives of commercial biotechnology firms and public members who are advocates for research in a range of diseases. The idea is to protect the money from corporate companies looking to capitalize on this new California gold rush.

Sounds like a good plan to me.

Robert N. Klein II, the Palo Alto real estate magnate who organized the ballot campaign has proposed the following safeguards to make sure that the money is spent wisely:

1) No member of the oversight committee was allowed to vote on a potential grant to his or her institution.

2) Those receiving grants from the California institute must follow National Institutes of Health rules for publishing and sharing data.

3) A group of outside experts, with no financial stake in the program, would be formed to ensure that grants were made equitably and ethically and based on the most promising science.

Another issue is patents restricting progress. Some patents in the field are already held by the University of Wisconsin, a pioneer in stem cell studies, and Geron, the leading private company involved in embryonic stem cells.

Mr. Klein does have some great points that favor the 3 billion price tag: (From the New York Times)

Klein acknowledged potential problems, but he said he hoped they would be resolved quickly and in the public’s favor. He also said that the greatest financial boon to California would not be in licensing fees or royalties, but in savings on the state’s huge health care expenses.

He said the $3 billion bond would pay for itself many times over if research led to even marginal improvement in therapies for a few of the 70 diseases for which stem cell studies show promise.

Some right leaning critics believe that the 3 billion is nothing but a slush fund for infant bio tech companies to play with. Their belief to fund science that is more advanced is the way to go. But my question is this… If stem cells do truely hold the amazing potential that they promise, how will we ever get this technology off the ground without investing now?

The conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer has this to say:

“This is a huge grant from the people of California to a very specific bio tech business, and it’s only because of stem cells’ notoriety that it’s this and not something else.

He also said regarding comments by John Edwards:

First, the inability of the human spinal cord to regenerate is one of the great mysteries of biology. The answer is not remotely around the corner. It could take a generation to unravel. To imply, as Edwards did, that it is imminent if only you elect the right politicians is scandalous.

Shouldn’t we start now? Will we not reach the goal faster if we elect the people that believe in progress? Will we not reach the goal by being positive? According to Krauthammer we simply need to learn to live a great life as we are. This is true but to try and spin hope and the promise of progress into an evil deed is just plain amazing to me.

He continues:

“As a doctor by training, I’ve known better than to believe the hype — and have tried in my own counseling of the newly spinal-cord injured to place the possibility of cure in abeyance. I advise instead to concentrate on making a life (and a very good life it can be) with the hand one is dealt. The greatest enemy of this advice has been the snake-oil salesmen promising a miracle around the corner. I never expected a candidate for vice president to be one of them.”

Wow.

Even if we don’t see immediate results from this technology we will surely make forward progress which is important and the people of California should pat themselves on the back from making an investment in the future lives of all human beings. If we fall short then that will be terrible. But if we don’t try then that is a tragedy.

The whole field of stem-cell research is so new that limiting one type of it runs the risk of prohibiting the technique that may prove most beneficial in the long run.

Marye Anne Fox, chancellor of the University of California, San Diego said:

she expected the program to provide money for state-of-the-art research facilities, at least one of which she hopes will be built in the San Diego area to take advantage of the existing concentration of nonprofit research institutes and private biotechnology companies there. The Burnham Institute and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies are neighbors of her university’s campus, and both are represented on the 29-member panel overseeing the state stem cell initiative.

But Dr. Fox said it was important that an outside review panel with no vested interest in the grant-making process be empowered to assure that proposals were subject to scientific peer review and awarded on the basis of merit, not insider connections.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” she said. “We are going to see an investment of a state that focuses on questions that are not funded at the federal level, apparently for political reasons.”

The bottom line is there is more to the argument than we know. Just like any political argument each side has it’s spin. But in closing I have my opinion and you can take it for what its worth.

It is a shame to require that unused embryos simply be discarded rather than being used for this purpose. And our legislation would require patient approval of the use of the discarded embryos.

The research is supported by disease-oriented organizations, such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the Huntington’s Disease Foundation and the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation. Research organizations such as the University of Washington School of Medicine also support the research among many, many others.

Plus the Republicans should love the fact that stem cell research will bring fresh private sector research dollars into the state with the added benefit of providing relief to millions of people suffering from debilitating diseases: This truly is a situation in which everyone benefits.

This is good enough for me.

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