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Miracle Cell or Hard Sell?
Third opinion: Having been integrally involved with embryonic-stem-cell research funding since it began (I was the citizen-sponsor of the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Research Act of 1999, which funded initial studies of Dr. [Hans] Keirstead's work, cited in the article), and having been a board member of the campaign to pass Proposition 71, I have some serious concerns with Peter Jamison's article ["Second Opinion," Feature, 4/15].

First, Jamison references the endlessly-repeated cancer scare. This is based on a false assumption, the direct injection of human embryonic stem cells into the body, which nobody wants to do. To the best of my knowledge, every serious stem-cell researcher differentiates the stem cells first, changing them from their blank-check status to whatever kind of cells are required. Differentiating the cells virtually eliminates the cancer concern. For example, the Keirstead/Geron experiment, which goes to human trials soon, will change embryonic stem cells into oligodendrocytes, and only then inject them.

Secondly, the notion that the California stem-cell program (California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM) is going whole-hog for adult-stem-cell research is not accurate. Dozens of grants given to embryonic-stem-cell research suggest otherwise.

But CIRM's approach is twofold: First, build the foundation of research, and second, translate it into usable products or procedures. Adult stem cells had a 50-year head start over embryonic, as well as massively preferential funding from the Bush administration, so it would be expected this research would reach the product stage first.

The California stem-cell program supports full stem-cell research: adult, embryonic, induced pluripotentiary, and somatic cell nuclear transfer, but not to the exclusion of the others.

As my paralyzed son, Roman Reed, put it, in words that became CIRM's official motto, our goal is and will continue to be turning stem cells into cures.

Don C. Reed


Peter Jamison responds: Don Reed is correct in his description of CIRM's "twofold" approach, though he mischaracterizes the article. The story does not assert that the state stem-cell agency is going "whole-hog" after adult-stem-cell cures. Rather, it makes the point that the question of how aggressively to pursue those cures, rather than the embryonic-stem-cell therapies highlighted during the Proposition 71 campaign, is, in the words of CIRM board member Jeff Sheehy, a critical "identity issue" facing the agency.

Where's the stem-ulus?: Thanks to Peter Jamison for a well-researched article on the current status of state-funded stem-cell research in California. However, I must take exception to the basic premise that the research funding was sold to the public on the promise of miracle cures. From my recollection, this initiative was sold on the basis of economic development.

Putting aside the subtext that we were sticking it to Bush (and that argument had so much emotional appeal back then, when the Bushites seemed to be unstoppable on every front), the idea was that the U.S., and California in particular, would lose out on the "next big thing" in cutting-edge research and the resulting economic fruits. We were told that other countries — I recall Singapore and the U.K. being most often mentioned — were putting up the money to take leadership. And, even within the U.S., we were in a fight with other states looking at similar initiatives.

So I would suggest that the question to be asked at the end of 10 years is not so much whether any actual cures and/or treatments are available at that precise moment, but rather, what did $3 billion get for California in terms of a new, cutting-edge industry that could, in turn, develop such cures and treatment?

From that perspective, a focus on basic research should be seen as something good — because basic research is the foundation of a new field. The funding decisions should not push research in pursuit of any specific cure just for the sake of expediency (or PR value) — such research should be funded only if and when the work holds promise. And, in research, it is okay to find that there is nothing to find, or that a once-promising area will not pan out.

I am not making these statements to defend the "economic benefits" argument. I am all for government funding of good research. But I would also say that $3 billion spent on public education or public transportation (to make just two suggestions) might have a wider impact on the state's economic health.

Alan Selsor



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