March 20, 2007

What Happens with Stem Cells After 2008? More of the Same.

David Jensen, whose California Stem Cell Report remains the authoritative source for anything going on around stem cells in California, has been reporting on the proceedings of a stem cell conference being put on by Stanford and Burrell and Company. Several speakers have been apparently saying something we’ve been arguing for a while now--- regardless of who wins, the presidential election of 2008 is not likely to produce any major changes in what one speaker called the “bizarre patchwork” of state funding and regulation of embryonic stem cell research. While many stem cell advocates would like to see a set of uniform federal standards and a big uptick in NIH funding, the likelihood of either of those things happening anytime soon after 2008 seems increasingly remote. While a new president, especially a Democratic one, might well sign the bill President Bush has vetoed once and is threatening to veto again to expand the number of stem cell lines eligible for federal research support, that’s likely to be all that happens. A major increase in NIH funding for ESC seems unlikely—one speaker at the conference even raised the possibility that NIH might even try to steer money away from ESC research because of all the state and private money already in play. Even if there’s a sizeable increase in stem cell funding, it would only make NIH one funder among many, and not likely the biggest one at that. NIH would have to increase its ESC funding roughly by a factor of eight to be competitive with California’s budget, and that doesn’t even include the funding in play from other states and private donors. While Congress could independently pass a law preempting individual state laws and establishing a uniform set of ESC research standards, the odds of that happening are less than slim. There’s no clear national consensus around a whole host of issues that would have to be addressed in such a bill, and the possibility that Congress could unify itself around one approach seems too remote to contemplate. What seems likely to happen instead is more of what we’ve got now—more states weighing in with ESC funding programs of widely varying sizes (look particularly at what New York and Wisconsin wind up doing) and ESC research being heavily supported in some states and illegal in some others. There will be increasingly vocal debates over royalties and product pricing that will be resolved in a wide range of ways, and conflicts between the rules that apply to collaborating researchers located in different states. This “bizarre patchwork” is markedly less efficient and more administratively difficult than a single funding source and set of rules would be, but it’s an accurate reflection of conflicting and diverse public views about ESC that don’t show any sign of going away anytime soon.
- Jim Fossett, Director, States and Bioethics Program of AMBI & The Rockefeller Institute

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