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January 19, 2011

Keeping the lights on

by David Kent

Light bulb Banned from receiving federal funds in 2004 by the Bush administration, human embryonic stem cell research was recently embraced by the Obama administration in March 2009 -- sort of, anyway. As many readers are no doubt aware, U.S. courts are currently embroiled in a debate about whether or not the federal government should be funding human embryonic stem cell research.  

If the Obama executive order makes it through the courts and federal monies (i.e.: National Institutes of Health) become widely available for embryonic stem cell research, then non-federal funding organizations (private or state) will certainly re-assess their role in stem cell research. A looming question is what will happen with the personnel and institutes that are funded by these special monies that were created when federal funding was not present –- or, in other words –- who will keep the lights on? Funders will no longer be asked to provide trailblazing monies for research that could not have otherwise been undertaken, but rather to determine if they can sustain this level of investment in stem cell research and infrastructure on top of the new federal research dollars. For many jurisdictions this decision is further complicated by the competing demands for resources as they seek to emerge from the global financial crisis. 

The most visible example of this dilemma is in California where the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which has a $3 billion, state-funded budget, will likely be seeking additional funding around 2014. The debate is further complicated by differing perspectives on human embryonic research in general as well as the costs and benefits of bold ventures such as CIRM (although it has also spurred some excellent discussion on the ethical and social implications of stem cell biology as well as the perceived value of public investment in basic and translational research). For those looking for more on the public debates related to CIRM, see: Proposition 71 and CIRM - assessing the return on investment, CIRM Research Results, and blogs such as the California Stem Cell Report and Stem Cell Battles

The question of sustained funding for research and infrastructure outside government sources is not relevant just to the United States -- these developments have broad implications and will impact numerous other organizations, states, or countries that are trying to fund and undertake stem cell research. The late 1990s and early 2000s produced a flood of funding for stem cells in many developed countries -– the UK has numerous organizations that will require substantial continued investment and Australia, Germany, and Japan have also invested heavily into stem cell research infrastructure and training. Canada’s own Stem Cell Network, which funds stem cell research in Canada, will have its sunset in 2015 without further government support.  

When embryonic stem cells were first discovered, investors and governments were asked to fund basic research that would bear translational fruit in the coming decades. However, “keeping” the lights on in the lab doesn’t attract nearly as much funding as “turning” them on in the first place so stem cell research will certainly rely on regular and considerable progress as it wades into a decade of serious expectations. Signs of this progress are slowly emerging (e.g.:  clinical trials in America and the UK), but much still needs to be done at the basic and clinical level before we can imagine wide application of these technologies. Fingers crossed.


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