May 12, 2008, 4:00 a.m.
New York’s $600 Million Question
Will non-embryonic-stem-cell research get its fair share of the funding pie?
By Father Thomas Berg
When Dr. Bertram Lubin, head of the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, applied for a $5 million facilities grant last fall from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) to support his research on sickle-cell anemia, his colleagues thought the application was a slam dunk.
The CIRM — the agency that distributes grants and loans under California’s voter-approved $3 billion stem-cell initiative — thought otherwise. As narrated in the just-published May edition of the journal Nature, Lubin appeared personally before the CIRM Board in January to make his case. The CIRM Board responded by rejecting Lubin’s application on a 10-5 vote. (Never mind that four of the board members voting against Lubin’s application represented institutions that were competing directly against Lubin for CIRM money.)
So, why was Lubin’s application shot down?
Lubin’s clinical data, in the opinion of his colleagues and independent observers, was solid. His request — in response to an RFA for facilities grants — was modest in comparison to the eight-figure grants the CIRM eventually approved. He just wanted to build new labs for the Children’s Hospital. And Lubin is no second-string researcher: His work is supported by the NIH, and he has served on many NIH peer-review committees. Lubin’s research, which focuses on adult stem cells derived from the placenta, could arguably translate almost immediately into therapeutic applications to the benefit of millions of black children who suffer atrociously from the effects of sickle cell anemia. About 1,000 babies a year are born with the genetic disease in the United States.
As it turns out, Lubin’s work was faulted among other things, according to a summary on the CIRM website, for showing “no evidence of current use or planned expansion into the use of human embryonic stem cells.”
Now, I can already hear the chorus of scientists who will cry foul if I suggest that this was the real reason why Lubin’s application was shot down. They will no doubt accuse me of setting up and knocking down a straw man. They will point out that the CIRM also supports human adult-stem-cell-research.
So be it. My intense exposure to the field of stem-cell research over the past eight years has too often revealed a largely unsubstantiated bias favoring work on human embryonic stem cells over other types of research — especially work on adult stem cells. And today, this is a bias turned scientific and political ideology, one that too often dominates the imaginations of those who hold the purse strings on private and State funding.
Even if we grant that there were reasonable grounds for rejecting Lubin’s application, faulting it for lack of embryonic-stem-cell work is specious. Even the journal Nature thought so. And if I’ve learned anything during these years, it’s that scientists are very clever and sophisticated at covering their muddy tracks: Almost anything can be easily veiled with science talk.
Nor can Lubin — who supports embryonic-stem-cell research — be accused of trying to make a political statement with his application. All he expected of the CIRM was a genuine diversity in its research portfolio that would reflect the reality of stem cell science, and genuinely support research for cures.
But perhaps he was expecting too much. “We’re not in the ‘in’ crowd,” Lubin told Nature. “So a project that was really going to go into patients was essentially triaged.”
One has to wonder whether a similar ideology will not take hold at New York’s own stem-cell board. Last year, New York followed California’s lead in providing state funding for stem-cell research. The Empire State Stem Cell Board (ESSCB) was brought into existence on April 1, 2007, composed of two committees — a Funding Committee and an Ethics Committee. I serve on the latter.
The ESSCB was empowered to oversee the funding of a $600 million, ten-year stem cell research initiative. On Thursday, May 8 Governor David Paterson announced that the next portion of the pie — nearly $109 million in new state funding — is now being made available to support stem-cell-research initiatives, including facilities grants.
I am convinced that my colleagues on the funding committee are equitable and intellectually honest. I am confident they can rise far above the sophomoric and unconscionable conflicts of interest that are becoming characteristic of the CIRM. They are also genuinely interested in promoting stem-cell research that can quickly translate into therapies and cures. But can they withstand the bias toward embryonic-stem-cell research? On that question I remain uncertain.
Last December, our Ethics Committee unanimously recommended to the Funding Committee a brief six month moratorium on the funding of controversial research projects (such as the creation of new lines of human embryonic stem cells) so that we could have time to make recommendations on the serious ethical issues involved in such research. We were roundly rebuffed, however. Such a moratorium, they argued, “would send the wrong signal to the scientific community in the State.”
The Empire State Stem Cell Board next meets on Tuesday. I can only hope that in future funding decisions, the Board will be cognizant of three realities: (1) the statute under which the ESSCB functions establishes that any type of stem-cell research can be funded in the State; (2) arguably two thirds stem-cell researchers in the State who work with cells from human sources do so on adult stem cells according to a recent ESSCB survey; and (3) that, according to initial drafts of our strategic plan, one of the goals of promoting stem-cell science in New York State is to translate basic research into therapies as fast as possible.
The quickest way to achieve that goal, of course, is by funding projects like Dr. Lubin’s.
The $600 million question is whether the ESSCB will allow a blind scientific ideology to trump cures, or whether it will direct monies toward research that holds out the greatest short-term hope for clinical successes. It would be a defeat for humanity if this board were ever to give a cold shoulder to researchers who have their fingers on promising new therapies, but who fail to toe the embryonic-stem-cell line.
— Father Thomas Berg, L.C. is executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person and a member of the Ethics Committee of the Empire State Stem Cell Board.
Thoughts in Solitude - Thomas Merton
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” † † †"Your way of acting should be different from the world's way"...Rule of St. Benedict.
-Thoughts in Solitude
© Abbey of Gethsemani