Stem cell researchers in the US are publishing a decreasing proportion of work on human embryonic stem cells (ES cells), according to a study undertaken by the Stanford University Centre for Biomedical Ethics. The authors of the study suggest that the decrease in proportion is likely to be due - at least in part - to the restrictions that President Bush put on federal ES cell research funding in 2001. Bush said that federally-funded scientists in the US can only conduct research on ES cell lines already in existence by 9 August 2001. But according to a separate article in the Wall Street Journal last week, which looked at the effects of the federal funding policy, only six ES cell lines of the ones originally authorise for research by Bush are 'in regular use'.
Jennifer McCormick, a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre, and Jason Owen-Smith, from the University of Michigan, looked at published research on ES cells that was published between November 1998 and December 2004. They found that while in 2002, US researchers accounted for a third of all research published, in 2004 this had declined to about one quarter, even though the actual amount of published research on ES cells had greatly increased. Their findings are published in full in the journal Nature Biotechnology. 'There is a gap between US and non-US groups', said McCormick, adding that the US 'can't allow its technology and scientific strengths to lessen, because it will affect competitiveness'. A press release issued by Stanford University adds that the 'fear that US researchers might lose ground to their international counterparts in carrying out human ES cell research now appears to have become a fact'.
Meanwhile, in a letter to the New York Times, Susan Solomon, chief executive of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, says that Bush's restrictions on federal funds have led individual states to create their own rules on funding in an 'absurdly piecemeal' way, meaning that opportunities for US researchers are being lost. She says that the funding situation will inevitably lead to competition between states, and that this 'will actually slow real progress in medical research'.
Maryland has become the latest state to publicly fund ES cell research, after Governor Robert Erlich signed a bill into law last week. The law provides that up to $15 million of state funds will be available next year for stem cell research projects using either ES or adult stem cells. A 15-member committee will receive proposals and choose how to allocate the funds. 'This new law will solidify Maryland's reputation as a national leader in medical research, attract and retain biotech companies and researchers to Maryland, and offer hope to millions of Americans suffering from debilitation conditions', said Erlich.
California, the first state to vote in favour of using public funds for ES cell research, has had difficulties getting its Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) up and running. The decision to use bonds to raise the funds for ES cell research in the state has undergone a series of challenges in the courts, meaning that the release of funds has been severely delayed since the proposition was approved in November 2004. A court will soon rule on a pair of lawsuits seeking to have the State's stem cell programme overturned. The claimants want to invalidate the law that created the CIRM, which is authorised to distribute $3 billion in research grants for stem cell research projects, ES cell research. The lawsuits claim that the programme is unconstitutional because the spending of taxpayer's money must be under state control.
However, last week a state panel authorised the CIRM to borrow up to $200 million from large philanthropic organisations in the form of 'bond anticipation notes' so that it can begin to issue grants. Since then, six private organisations and charitable foundations have come forward to purchase $14 million worth of short term bond anticipation notes to fund the CIRM until the legal challenges are over. However, Robert Klein, chair of the CIRM, says that he will continue to work to secure another $36 million of bonds.