Skepticism about California’s stem cell institute persists

By Michael Cook

The dispute over 2004’s Proposition 71, for setting up California’s $3 billion stem cell research institute, has surfaced again in the local media. Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik wrote a stinging critique as part of his attack on a new proposition to tax cigarettes to pay for medical research (that went up in smoke in June 5th ballot):

“Proposition 71, you may recall, was sold to a gullible public via candy-coated images of Christopher Reeve walking again and Michael J. Fox cured of Parkinson’s. The implication was that these miracles would happen if voters approved a $3-billion bond issue for stem cell research. Who could be against that?

“As it turned out, the stem cell measure created an unwieldy bureaucracy and etched conflicts of interest into the state Constitution. By last count about 85% of the $1.3 billion in grants handed out by the program, or some $1.1 billion, has gone to institutions with representatives on the stem cell board. The program is virtually immune to oversight by the Legislature or other elected officials. For these reasons and others, it has grappled with only mixed success with changes in stem cell science and politics that have called its original rationale into question.”

The head of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Alan Trounson, indignantly responded in a letter to the editor that “No ads for Proposition 71 promised miraculous cures. They promised good science, and that is what is being funded, with more than 62 promising therapies for 40 different diseases on their way to clinical trials.”

Hiltzik admitted that the promoters did not promise “miraculous cure,” but they did offer unwarranted certainty.

“Given that the essence of scientific research is that no one can predict the outcome, to assert as fact that ‘lives will be saved by Prop. 71’ is plainly to promise something downright extraordinary, if not outright miraculous.”

Editor’s note. This appeared at www.bioedge.org/index.php/bioethics/bioethics_article/10098 and is reprinted with permission.