California research institute says embryonic stem cell success years away

Updated 5:50 p.m. EDT

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (BP)--In an announcement that some ethicists say should lead to a greater focus on adult stem cells, a much-celebrated California stem cell institute says any cures using embryonic stem cells likely are years away.

The 143-page draft report by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine lays out five-year and 10-year goals for the institute, which was created following a 2004 statewide vote that guaranteed it $3 billion in funding from bonds over 10 years. The institute is scheduled to receive $300 million a year and will conduct research using both embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning. One of the goals is to make California a worldwide leader in embryonic stem cell research.

But at the end of those 10 years, the institute may not have developed any cures at all, the draft report says. The draft still must be approved by the CIRM board.

"The goal of CIRM at ten years will be to have some therapies in clinical development, with others in the pipeline at various stages of development, poised to go on to the next stage," the draft report, dubbed the "scientific strategic plan," states. It was written by a group of experts that includes two Nobel scientists, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

Before any cures using embryonic stem cells are developed, the report says, basic studies on the "fundamental biology" of embryonic stem cells must be done. As of now, scientists' understanding of embryonic stem cells is "incomplete," the report says.

The fact that the institute is not promising cures within 10 years doesn't sit well with many Californians who had hoped to see cures in the short-term. The institute won't be receiving any more money from bonds at the end of the 10 years, although it hopes to show enough success so that private investors will want to "carry the research forward," the draft report says. In fact, the report says success is "essential" if private investors are to step up.

But supporters of adult stem cell research -- many of whom oppose embryonic stem cell research for ethical reasons -- note that adult stem cells already are providing treatments for all sorts of ailments. According to Do No Harm, an organization that promotes ethics in research, adult stem cells have provided treatments and therapies for 72 ailments, including brain cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and sickle cell anemia.

Earlier this year Baptist Press interviewed Jacki Rabon, an Illinois woman who was paralyzed during an automobile accident but now is learning to walk again following a surgery that placed her own adult stem cells into her spinal cord.

"The embryonic stem cell hype has been running far ahead of the research from the beginning," C. Ben Mitchell, director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity in suburban Chicago, told Baptist Press. "The cheerleaders for embryonic stem cell research have created the unrest among Californians themselves. They have created expectations that may never be met.

"Meanwhile, adult stem cells continue to be used to treat and cure illnesses, and many of the promises have already been realized. It's time to stop playing fast and loose with the truth and invest more time, money and resources in adult stem cell research," added Mitchell, who serves as a consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Don Reed of Fremont, Calif., whose son is a quadriplegic, criticized the institute's draft report for being too cautious. He supported Proposition 71, which created the institute.

"While it is right and proper for scientists to be careful, I take a more optimistic view. In 10 years, I expect my paralyzed son, Roman Reed, to be walking," he told the Mercury News.

Stem cells are the body's master cells that can develop into other cells and tissues. They can be derived from both embryonic and non-embryonic (or, adult) sources. Adult stem cells can be harvested from various places, including a person's fat, bone marrow and placenta.

Pro-lifers support adult stem cell research but oppose embryonic stem cell research because it requires the destruction of the tiny human being.

"It's what we've been saying for all this time, and finally they admit the truth -- that they're to go through billions of taxpayer dollars in California and still not treat a single patient," David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, told Baptist Press. "They sold this to the citizens of California primarily based on all of the cures that were going to come through embryo research and cloning.

"… In the meantime, we're already seeing thousands of patients who are benefiting now from adult stem cells. And that's really where our focus ought to be, if we really cared about the patients."

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has been slowed by lawsuits that have delayed the sale of bonds, the Mercury News reported. A lower court earlier this year upheld the constitutionality of the institute, although the decision is being appealed. In July, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- seeking to get the research off the ground -- authorized a $150 million loan to the institute, saying that California was "poised to lead not only this country, but all countries, on stem cell research."

But while most scientists believe embryonic stem cells have more potential for providing treatments for debilitating diseases, so far only adult cells have been successful.


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With reporting by Tom Strode.