Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Trend Continues...

With its recent round of grants, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) continues a trend begun several years ago now – increasing support for non-embryonic stem cell research and reducing support for destructive human embryonic stem cell research (hESCR) and research aimed at human cloning.  This trend by CIRM away from embryonic stem cell research is not driven by any ethical concerns—CIRM continues to issue grants for hESCR, only on a far smaller scale than originally envisaged.  CIRM was founded, after all, on the premise that it would give funding priority to hESCR and cloning for research as those were considered the most promising avenues for producing cures.

But since 2004, when California voters approved a referendum establishing CIRM, the evidence for the efficacy of adult stem cells to provide therapeutic benefits for patients has continually increased, while the evidence for human embryonic stem cells to do the same has decreased.  CIRM, for instance, approved a $25 million loan[1] to Geron for that company’s now infamous clinical trial using hESCs to treat spinal cord injury, only to see Geron cancel the trial just over one year after the first patient was treated -- with no evidence of therapeutic benefits to the five patients who received the hESCs (see previous blog, “An Era EndsBefore It Even Begins”).

According to a report in Nature, since October 2011 CIRM has been considering a new 5 year strategic plan that gives funding priority to stem cell research with the best chance of leading to clinical trials.  The new plan, adopted in late May, envisions at least 10 early stage clinical trials within the next 5 years.

Commenting on the shift of emphasis from basic research to preparing for clinical trails,
Deepak Srivastava, a cardiovascular researcher at the Gladstone Institute in San Francisco, told Nature “With their stated goals of getting cures into people, it’s appropriate to shift the balance.”

The latest round of CIRM grants, announced the same day the new strategic plan was adopted, reflects this funding priority of “getting cures to people.”  Of the 21 grants  –totaling $69.3 million – only 6 involve research using hESCs[2]  None of the grants go to human cloning for research.

The remaining 15 grants all go to research using adult stem cells, iPSCs and direct reprogramming of adult cells.  Obviously this funding emphasis -- a lion’s share of $50.9 million --on non-embryonic research reflects a belief that these avenues hold the most promise for producing actual therapies.

[1] Of the$25 million approved, Geron actually received $6.42 million before cancelling the trial.  The company has repaid the loan in full, with interest.  
[2] One of those six uses [non-embryonic] induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) in addition to hESCs.

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