This month, Jeffrey Bouley takes a look at some of the potential issues that could provide complications for the disbursement of funds by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the body created with the passage of Proposition 71 in 2004 which provided $3 billion in state funds for embryonic stem cell research (see editconnect E050605).
Apparently some folks have been stirring the pot of foment by questioning both the potential royalties schedule faced by researchers getting funds from CIRM as well as potential roadblocks faced due to broad embryonic stem cell patents held by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF).
For its part, WARF says not to worry, that it has been typically generous in providing free licenses to folks engaged in embryonic stem cell research. There really is no reason to expect otherwise and frankly, I'm guessing the folks at CIRM would love to have this kind of problem right now. It would at least mean that they had begun dispersing large chunks of the roughly $300 million in grants it expects to average every year over the next ten years.
Unfortunately, some 18 months after nearly 60 percent of California voters approved the measure, CIRM has only provided roughly $14 million in grants to stem cell researchers. No, this is not the classic case of a new bureaucracy stumbling to get organized. Rather it is the result of numerous lawsuits—the last resort of the disgruntled who find themselves on the short end of the stick after a vote.
Allies in this litigation are The California Family Bioethics Council, a conservative Christian advocacy group and the taxpayer group Peoples Ad-vocate. Both have questioned the constitutionality of CIRM based essentially on its structure—though we can all guess the real reasons each would prefer to find a legal victory after a crushing defeat at the ballot box.
So far, CIRM has prevailed on the legal challenges, the most recent an April 21 decision by Alameda County Judge Bonnie Sabraw that said the lawsuits failed to show that the law created by Proposition 71 "was clearly, positively and unmistakably unconstitutional."
Certainly, this was good news for the folks at CIRM and the majority of voters in the Golden State, but it isn't expected to be the last court ruling needed to allow the state to finally begin selling the bonds to fund the research. In fact, if this issue ends up in the California Supreme Court, which seems inevitable, it could be another year before the legal questions—such as they are —are settled.
Unfortunately, this is not a one-front battle for CIRM. Concurrent with the legal actions has been a concerted effort by some state legislators to pass laws that would make the oversight, documentation and procedures necessary to grant money, costly and time consuming.
In other words, the strategy for those who oppose the effort is one of delaying for as long as possible any research or to at least limit the dollars available to scientists by forcing CIRM to eat up much of its funds in administrative costs.
The frustration among public officials in California these days is palpable, the legal challenges alone prompted California Attorney General Bill Lockyer to comment: "It's unfortunate that the plaintiffs, after losing at the polls, went to court to frustrate the voters' will."
The sad thing is it never should have come to this. Current, wrong-headed, federal guidelines for public funding of embryonic stem cell medical research created this mess. California was merely trying to provide some measure of "progressive" public financing for what is important—dare I say, necessary—research.
Public opinion is also on the side of embryonic stem cell research, again nearly 60 percent of all Americans in favor, while the numbers of those opposed continues to shrink well south of 20 percent.
It is well past time for this very vocal minority to simply do what you sometimes need to do in a democracy: drop the zealotry and accept the will of the majority.
And let the scientists get to work.