A GLOBAL STEM CELL RESEARCH ACTION PLAN
By Don C. Reed
Like a war more deadly than any in history, chronic disease is ravaging Earth.
The incurably ill suffer and die no less than if bullets had struck them; hospitals and sickrooms overflow, inadequate to the task.
Our problem is simple. With expensive modern medicines, we can keep our loved ones alive despite almost any illness or injury—but we cannot make them well.
Two staggering statistics: first, in America alone, medical costs exceed $2.3 trillion in 2007, more than all federal income tax receipts ($1.8 trillion) combined—and three-fourths of all medical costs are directly due to chronic (incurable) disease.
First, we need international recognition of the scope of the problem.
The United Nations must urge the world to work together on research for cure: stem cell research, gene therapy, biomedicine– within each nation’s ideological belief system.
Some nations (the Vatican, for example) oppose embryonic stem cell research; but there is no reason they could not fund adult stem cell research: the Pope’s recently urged the Earth’s Catholic community to support non-embryonic stem cell research, including the new induced Pluripotentiary (iPS) stem cells, an important piece of the puzzle.
In countries that already do support full stem cell research, advocates must build upon that hard-won foundation in the UK, China, Singapore, Spain, Japan, Sweden, and many others, including (very soon) the United States.
We need international scholarship programs, so even the poorest countries can lend their brightest young men and women to Earth’s emergency. If a country cannot afford a medical research college, loan programs should be developed for this global benefit.
In the business community, every country can and should encourage the research, from basic theory in the laboratories, to translation into actual use: therapies and cures.
As was done in San Diego, where four great institutes joined their strength for the good of all, companies and colleges can form consortiums, sharing their scientists, their knowledge, and their equipment.
Cities, states, and provinces can make life easier for struggling startups: establishing “incubators” for biomedical Mom-and-Pop companies as Silicon Valley did for the fledgling computer industry.
New ways of thinking can foster cooperation among scientists, like the disease team approach of the California stem cell program, and beyond.
What if the best scientists in the country were locked in a room, and not let out until they found a cure for __________ disease? Ridiculous, perhaps, or maybe not: if disease came with explosions, and germs were big enough to wear uniforms, we would take it much more seriously.
At every step, government must help.
Asia understands. In China, the government is offering tax incentives, as well as funding at national and local levels; in Singapore, an entire community, Biopolis, provides jobs and housing for biomedical scientists and their families. This is wisdom, and should be emulated here at home, unless we want the biomedical revolution to be outsourced, giving blessings only to other countries.
In America, the emerging life science industry must think of itself as a new Defense Department– and quit being so bashful! What business is more vital, urgent, and irreplaceable than one which could save lives and ease the suffering of millions?
We dare not flinch from political involvement. On the contrary, Biomed must lobby aggressively, make campaign contributions to legislators who support our goals, and vigorously oppose ideologues who would block the industry of healing.
Talk about a justifiable tax exemption! To my mind, the entire biomedical industry should be tax free for at least a decade, give it time to grow.
In Washington, there is much to be done. President-elect Obama must follow through with his promise: to remove ideological restrictions on regenerative medicine. This goes deeper than the ill-conceived Bush restrictions. The Dickey Amendment, for example, should no longer be automatically renewed, attached every year to some “must-pass” legislation. That miserable law defines cells in a Petri dish as the equivalent of a human being; it is even rewritten year after year to block new forms of research, like nuclear transfer research, which involves neither sperm nor womb. It is time we stopped allowing opponents of science to be the “deciders” on science policy—in a country based on liberty.
But freedom to research, while crucial as the air we breathe, is not enough. We cannot live on air alone, and neither can the families of scientists. These men and women are trying to do the impossible with the invisible, and we must look out for them.
Imagine if President John F. Kennedy had pointed to the sky, and said: we are going to the moon—but we’re not actually going to pay for it? Research without funding is like a moonshot with no rocket.
The Castle/Degette Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act (twice vetoed by President Bush) must be rewritten to include major money for the research.
The National Institutes of Health must no longer be ignored. The NIH was once the crown jewel of Earth’s research, and it must be so again. Its funding levels have been “flat-lined” for the past five years; costs have risen, but its funding has not even kept pace with inflation. When a patient’s vital signs flat-line, they need life support; so does the NIH.
We need help from every state.
At present, only a “Magnificent Seven” states provide funds for full stem cell research: California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois, and Maryland. Even here, there is no room to relax, as advocates must fight to protect what has been won.
Not even the magnificent California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is safe. There is money for grant programs until July of this year, and enough to run the Institute itself (on a skeleton crew) for a year after that. But our funding comes from bonds which are sold, and that sale must be approved by the Secretary of the Treasury. If the financial conditions in the Golden State do not improve, and new bond sales are not allowed, California may be forced to do again what ICOC chair Bob Klein did to protect us before. When our funding was blocked by lawsuits, he and a dedicated few board members brought in loan/gifts from the public: a tremendously difficult job even then, and it will be immeasurably more difficult now.
And what about the states which still handcuff their scientists? Places like Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, and Virginia still put ideological hurdles in front of researchers, sometimes calling them criminals, and threatening them with prosecution for their life-giving work.
Advocates in such states do have options: they can directly challenge the negative laws; or work around them, pushing for funding bills which support only adult stem cell research; or, they may prepare the state for tomorrow, giving educational talks to community organizations: such speeches are hugely influential, planting seeds for future growth and beneft.
One useful tool is a miniature research bill, like California’s Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act. It is tiny, just $1.5 million a year. But from that small beginning, a way to cure paralysis may spring. If you saw the paralyzed rats that walked again, scampering around a purple plastic swimming pool on TV, you saw “our” work. One influential scientist, Dr. Hans Keirstead, succeeded first with a Roman Reed grant, then used that success as leverage for larger grants from the NIH; That experiment (now funded by ground-breaking Geron) is under consideration by the FDA for human trials, the first in the world.
“Roman’s Law” has funded about $12 million in research over the few years of its existence—and quintupled that investment for the Golden State, bringing in an additional $50 million in matching funds from the feds, new money for our state—funding more than 50 scientists and their staffs, good jobs for our state and nation
Why not a regenerative research funding law in every state?
One immediate benefit would be funding for new scientists, the young ones all too often locked out of grants from the NIH. Because there is so little money in the National Institutes of Health budget, a scientist often won’t get help from this prime source until he or she reaches an average age of 43. A scientist who earns a doctor’s degree (a huge accomplishment) may not be able to make a living for the first twenty years in the field!
In these and other ways, small and large, our states and nations can work together. Every contribution helps: like little cloth squares, meaningless by themselves, but when combined into a patchwork quilt, bring warmth and comfort on a freezing Winter’s night.
Imagine how beautiful international research cooperation could be: like an Iranian/Israeli stem cell research institute. Why not? Both countries are strong supporters of stem cell research, everybody loves their children, and every family deserves access to the best medicine science can provide.
Already, the State of California is working with countries like Canada, Japan and the UK, finding ways to multiply our efforts, getting far more bang to the buck, while still spending the money inside the Golden State, as mandated by Proposition 71.
We must support the research where it grows; plant seeds where it is not—with a global stem cell research action plan.
Don C. Reed is Vice-President for Public Policy, Americans for Cures Foundation; his opinions may or may not reflect the views of the Foundation.