Maryland is one of a handful of states to publicly fund embryonic stem cell research. In 2006, the state established the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund (MSCRF), which distributes grants to stem cell research projects. The first round of grants was in 2007, and over the years the Fund has distributed millions of dollars to such research
It is also home to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, one of the nation’s most prominent centers of stem cell research.
Earlier this year, the MSCRF released its annual report for 2016. The report lists 26 research programs funded last year amounting to over $8.2 million. Fully 90% of the funds dispersed -- $7.7 million -- went to 22 projects using adult and other non-embryonic stem cell research. Only one project to receive a grant used human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) exclusively (three used both hESCs and induced pluripotent stem cells, aka iPSCs). That is a sea change from the first round of grants the MSCRF made in 2007.
As with other states that first chose to fund hESC research, Maryland did so in the wake of then-President George W. Bush’s 2001 decision to fund hESCR, but to limit such funding to hESC lines already in existence. Some states chafed at such limits, and so decided to fund the research on their own, without such restrictions. At the time, hESCs were being hailed by scientists, politicians, celebrities and other public figures as having the potential to cure any number of diseases and conditions – Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, heart failure and spinal cord injury, among many others. Ethically non-contentious adult stem cell research, on the other hand, was characterized as inferior, capable at best of only limited use in providing therapeutic benefits to patients.
Thus, the grants distributed in 2007 by MSCRF reflected this belief. Out of 24 grants, 11 went to projects using hESCS, or 45%. Only 4 grants were given to research projects centering on adult stem cells. The 11 hESC research projects received $5.2 million while the 4 adult stem cell projects received less than half that - a mere $2.4 million.
But over the years, this pattern began to shift, with an increasing share of grants going to non-embryonic stem cell research (such as adult and induced pluripotent stem cell research) and fewer to hESC research projects.
By 2010, this new pattern displayed a decisive turn away from hESCR and towards ethically non-contentious, non-embryonic stem cell research. Funding for non-embryonic stem cell research outstripped funding for hESCR 10 to 1, with the former receiving $9.9 million and the latter just over $1 million. This pattern will likely continue for as long as MSCRF continues to distribute grants, as those distributed in 2016 once again shows.
In the early years of the public policy debate over funding for hESCR, numerous researchers affiliated then and now with Johns Hopkins testified before Congress on the superiority of such research over all others to advance the goals of regenerative medicine and on the urgent need to expand federal funding for it.
Over the years, Maryland’s pattern of funding for stem cell research would seem to indicate that there has been a clear change of mind on this. And Maryland is not alone on this -- as this blog has noted before (here, here, and here), California’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine – the nation’s largest funder of stem cell research outside the federal government -- has also over the years shifted more and more of its grants to non-embryonic stem cell research as well.
These shifts in grant making by Maryland and California seem to indicate, at the very least, that hESCs can no longer be claimed as the “gold standard” for stem cell research and providing therapeutic benefits to patients. That claim now belongs to research using ethically non-contentious, non-embryonic stem cells.