ARTICLE IN BRIEF
Leading stem cell researchers discuss the changing funding environment and priorities for stem cell research.
Researchers who specialize in stem cell work say state support is racing ahead of federal dollars, creating an imbalance for researchers and worries about pressure to produce as the economy continues to falter.
While some states — like California, New York, and Texas — offer strong funding support, investigators told Neurology Today they feel a lot of pressure from the public and from politicians to produce a miracle cure. Some worry that that pressure is influencing funding, so that money is going more to clinical trials than to model systems focused on basic science. And everyone is wondering what the upcoming election will bring.
National funding through the NIH has increased since 2002, with a big boost in 2009 with the addition of stimulus funds. With the end of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds in 2011, federal funding is more competitive than ever, said Susan L. Solomon, the co-founder and chief executive officer of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, which raises private money for stem cell research.
Solomon said that looking nationally, it was clear that specific states were moving ahead of others. In New York, public funding was cut from $600 million to $550 million in recent budget cuts but over all she called the state's commitment to stem cell research “strong.”
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“It's critical to move forward but it's harder,” she said. “There was close to $1 billion in federal funding in 2010 but the whole budget has taken a 10 percent cut, so we'll just have to see.”
Evan Snyder, MD, PhD, director of the Stem Cells and Regenerative Biology Program at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, CA, said he was encouraged by last year's appointment of Mahendra S. Rao, MD, PhD, as director of the new NIH Intramural Center for Regenerative Medicine.
It's challenging to access funding trends because the money comes from so many different agencies, Dr. Snyder said, adding that he hoped that Dr. Rao would be able to see the big picture and head off any problems coming down the road.
“With a combination of lower NIH funding and some states lowering their support, it could significantly impair research in regenerative medicine,” said Dr. Snyder.
“Obviously funding is the mother's milk of discovery, so the discoveries will come from where the funding is. NIH was the great equalizer — if you were good you could get funding no matter where you were because NIH did not discriminate between states. But now there will be various states that will pull ahead.”
NINDS Director Story Landis, PhD, said money for biomedical research has remained flat since 2003, while the costs for doing research have risen 3–4 percent each year. “So we have the same number of dollars, but those dollars buy less,” she said.
Arnold R. Kriegstein MD, PhD, is the director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the University of California, San Francisco. He said the recent closure of an embryonic stem cell bank in Boston is indicative of the change in funding focus.
The stem cell bank, housed at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Shrewsbury was established in 2008 with $8.6 million in public funds. It is slated to close when it runs out of money by the end of the year.
“The science has moved on and eclipsed the need for human embryonic stem cells; instead it's focusing on induced pluripotent stem cell [iPS] lines that are made from patient cells or blood cells,” Dr. Kriegstein said.
“They are much easier to make and more widespread so now it's iPS cell banks.”
California has been lucky, said Clive Svendsen, PhD, director of the Cedars-Sinai Regenerative Medicine Institute in California. He moved there in 2010 from the University of Wisconsin.
In 2004, the state approved Proposition 71, which allocated over $3 billion toward stem cell research. Unlike federal funding, which restricts research to the 100 approved lines, there are no restrictions on California's research, Dr. Svendsen said.
The money was used not only for research but also to build facilities and to lure other researchers, like Dr. Svendsen and Dr. Snyder, who came from Harvard University.
But it comes with expectations. Expectations of a miracle cure. And that hasn't appeared.
The key is patience, Dr. Svendsen said. “It's like gene therapy, it's been 30 years since they started working on gene therapy and they just now announced the first product to be produced in Europe,” he said.
“It will take another 10–15 years of stem cell research to produce products, but right now we're in the early stages and we shouldn't be in a big rush.”
Sean Morrison, PhD, director of the Children's Medical Center Research Institute at the University of Texas- Southwestern, where he moved a year ago from the University of Michigan, was lured there by a $3 billion cancer research initiative.
Dr. Morrison said the disparities between states with strong regenerative medicine funding would create a “winners and losers” scenario. In an ideal world, he said, strong federal funding would eliminate that problem but it's unclear what will happen in November.
“There was a big change three years ago after the Obama election and his issuance of an executive order that overturned funding restrictions that tried to block stem cell research,” Dr. Morrison said.
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“But overall there's a decline in biomedical research, so where NIH used to provide the primary support and researchers might have a secondary support from a private foundation, now NIH is more of the secondary support and it's made an enormous difference.”
The swing toward state funding creates challenges because it becomes a political tool, said Dan Gincel, PhD, director of the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund. The state committed $100 million over five years, without restrictions on stem cell lines, he said.
Grant applications are slowly moving away from basic research toward clinical trial funding, he said. But he thought that was less about pressure to create a cure and more about the science moving towards commercialization.
But Dr. Gincel said he definitely hears from the state about expectations. “Every year we have to testify, whether for budget hearings or technology committees and they want updates. They say we're giving you the money and where are the results?” Dr. Gincel said. “I explain that developing results takes about 15 years, but we're moving forward trying. We try to show them results from clinical trials and we're pushing the researchers to show how the product they're developing can be commercialized.”
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Dr. Landis said when she became NINDS director in 2003, it was the very end of the period when funding doubled. A year later, the public was asking why the budget doubled but the number of cures did not.
“It would take five years to run a clinical trial from start to finish,” she said. “The expectations of what that doubling would bring were unrealistic.”
It's up to the science community to educate the public about the scientific process, Dr. Landis said
Researchers were uncertain where Mitt Romney stands on stem cell funding, despite his support as governor in Massachusetts.
“It's a bit of a black box,” said Solomon, of New York.