Best Hope Lies in Privately Funded Stem Cell Research

By Sigrid Fry-Revere
This article appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on April 21, 2007.

Stem cell research has the potential to cure more diseases than any other medical advance in recent memory – and perhaps in history altogether. On face, the impulse to fund such research federally is admirable, but as President Bush and the Democratic Congress duke it out, we see why government funding has historically done more to stall than advance controversial medical research.

Two stem cell funding bills passed the Senate last week and are now being considered in the House: one, sponsored by Democrats, that would fund research on any embryo destined to be discarded, and another, introduced by Republicans, that does little to further research because it only allows funding for research that won’t harm embryos.

It’s better to allow private interests to fund the most promising research than to allow the party in power to make medical and scientific decisions for all. In 2005, California passed Proposition 71, committing $3 billion in state funding to stem cell research, and since then, not a cent of that money has been spent. Private donations and loans — including some from the state’s general fund — are making moderate progress on stem cells, but the money authorized by Prop. 71 remains tied up in lawsuits filed by those who oppose the research on moral grounds.

It’ll be at least another year before California can issue the bonds to raise the funding, let alone distribute it. And these being bonds, they’ll saddle California taxpayers with an additional $3 billion in interest payments over the next 30 years.

By contrast, in Missouri, voters last November passed a constitutional amendment protecting the right to pursue all forms of stem cell research allowed under federal law — but not funding it. This ensured that the state kept the door open for private laboratories like the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, which employs an international team of researchers and $2 billion in private endowments. For years, Stowers has been doing extraordinary research on adult stem cells, and the amendment will see to it that the progress continues as the lab expands into embryonic stem cell research in the future. And since it’s privately funded, there’ll be no bond issues, no debts, no interest to pay, and no taxpayer liability.

Stowers has shown tremendous success in adult stem cell research. Earlier this year, they documented the development of cancer stem cells. And just last month, they discovered the mechanism by which certain stem cells regenerate themselves — a process essential to therapies that may one day heal damaged organ tissue. They are working now to expand current research programs to include embryonic stem cell research.

Medical research has never ground to a halt when government has declined to support it. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported last September that between 1994 and 2003, the U.S. nearly tripled spending on biomedical research, and in any year where federal funding decreased, private funding increased to make up for the difference. The private sector can easily compensate for fluctuations in government spending, and more importantly, can move forward without any federal funding at all.

The great advantage of private funding is that it allows research to proceed even — especially — when it is politically touchy. When the federal government refused to fund in-vitro fertilization research in the mid-1970s, critics cried that the U.S. would fall behind, that there would be a brain drain, and that infertile couples would suffer. None of these dire predictions came true. Instead, the research proceeded privately and today reproductive technologies — IVF and related technologies for humans and animals — represent a $16 billion a year industry in the U.S. alone.

So not surprisingly, when President Bush exercised the first and only veto of his presidency to stop federal funding for embryonic stem cell research in 2006, private interests donated millions upon millions of dollars to continue embryonic stem cell research without federal assistance.

Now, when private laboratories are already in motion, the Senate is sending over to the House a ham-handed bill that would threaten everything our scientists are already accomplishing. The lure of federal funding would pervert existing incentives, prompting laboratories to abandon productive but politically sensitive research for politically safe but less promising work.

Even Michael J. Fox’s own Foundation for Parkinson’s Research seems to have given up on government action. Just last month, Fox’s foundation made a significant contribution to ReNeuron, a private stem cell research laboratory. The actual dollar amount of the donation remains undisclosed, but ReNeuron officials claim that it is large enough to cover their operating costs and accelerate their research efforts for at least the next year.

No doubt it’s hard for Senators to accept that progress can happen without them, but if they’d really like to see stem cells do wonders, they should leave the funding to the private sector, and the research decisions to the researchers. Let the labs get on with their work: discovering the cures for what ails us.

Sigrid Fry-Revere is director of bioethics studies at the Cato Institute.