Friday, September 23, 2011

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Late August saw another round of grants from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

CIRM, you may recall, was established by a voter-approved referendum in 2004, with a $3 billion budget (plus another $3 billion in interest) over 10 years.  Its mission was to fund stem cell research, with funding preference to go to human embryonic stem cell research (hESCR) and to human cloning for research. 

But as the late August grants (again) show, things have not turned out as anticipated. 

This round of grants is intended to encourage researchers to form teams in an effort to quicken the time frame for translating research into actual clinical trials.  As CIRM put it, the grants would encourage “the most promising approaches towards and into early phase clinical trials.”

So what are these “most promising approaches” to actually producing early phase clinical trials, especially in terms of CIRM’s mandate to give preferential treatment to hESCR and human cloning for research?

Well, projects involving adult stem cells were preferred over those utilizing embryonic stem cells – and by a whopping 3 to 1 margin. 

In total, CIRM handed out 19 grants amounting to $1.8 million in preliminary funding (a second round of grants will be worth up to $20 million each).  Of those 19, 16 involved the potential therapeutic uses of stem cells (other proposals addressed other research areas, such as proposals to study cancer stem cells).  Of those 16, 12 involved proposals to use adult stem and other non-embryonic stem cells to treat heart disease, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s, among others. Eleven will use actual adult stem cells, while 1 will use non-embryonic induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

Only 4 of the approved grants were for projects using hESCs.  No grants were awarded to research using cloned human embryos.

This latest round of grants actually continues a pattern that has been developing for some time at CIRM. 

In October, 2009, a major round of CIRM grants totaling some $230 million went to 14 research projects – but only 4 of them involved the use of hESCs.  The rest, again, went to research using adult stem cells or more conventional approaches, such as drugs to treat cancer. 

The irony of an institute founded to give preferential support to hESCR and human cloning for research instead giving such extensive support to adult stem cell research was not lost to observers at the time.  

“In something of an irony, little of it is going to the reason the institute exists - to work with human embryonic stem cells,” the Knight Science Journalism Tracker commented.
The San Diego Union-Tribune noted: “One irony of the latest grants is that much of the work they support does not involve human embryonic stem cells, a contentious area because it requires the destruction of embryos. Bush administration funding restrictions on that work were a big reason the California institute was launched to begin with, but many of the current projects use less-controversial adult stem cells”.
And the New York Times said that the large number of grants to adult stem cell research compared to embryonic is a “tacit acknowledgment that the promise of human embryonic stem cells is still far in the future.”

While CIRM’s favoring of adult stem cell research may be ironic, it is nonetheless understandable.  CIRM knows it needs to show some tangible results to California taxpayers for what will eventually be their $6 billion investment in stem cell research.
Hype -- especially the hype over ESCR that played such a large role in CIRM’s creation – will only get you so far.  And as it noted in handing out the current round of grants, CIRM gives priority to those project which seem the “most promising” to actually result in clinical trials. 

Once again, adult stem research is proving the most promising approach toward achieving both these goals.

And the promise of hESCR still remains “far in the future.”

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