Stem cell exodus?
Embryonic stem cell funding flows again – for now. But stop-and-go funding and continued legal wrangling could push researchers of cells from human embryos to pursue other fields.
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When George W. Bush first constricted federal dollars for the research in 2001, a few scientists headed for labs in Singapore and Britain. But they tended to be nationals of those countries. Most American scientists are reluctant to defect abroad.Skip to next paragraph
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More are willing to move west to benefit from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which is spending $3 billion over 10 years on stem-cell research. CIRM has distributed more than $1 billion already; 56 percent of it has gone to hESC research. New York, Maryland, and nine other states have collectively pledged $1.1 billion over 10 years to stem-cell research, out of which an indeterminate amount will go to hESC research.
Another nonfederal funding avenue is private research money. Several of the biggest labs already have ties to private organizations like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, but those can't replace lost NIH funds.
Pharmaceutical companies aren't interested in funding this work yet, because profitable treatments are still too far in the future. "Your typical pharmaceutical company doesn't want to get involved while it's still this risky," says Dr. Anderson. "The NIH has been able to fund this work without any expectation of profit." A few venture capitalists have expressed interest, but none is yet a "major player," he adds.
Younger scientists and staff may consider moving out of academia and hospitals altogether. Two companies dominate the field: Geron Corp., in California, which is beginning clinical trials for a stem-cell treatment for spinal cord injury, and Advanced Cell Technology, which has labs in California and Massachusetts. Both of these small, publicly traded biotech companies operate at a severe loss as they try to create "biopharmaceuticals" from stem cells.
Costs if research goes private
If research shifts from academia to private industry, it could affect the pace of development, as confidentiality clauses keep major discoveries out of peer-reviewed literature. Some scientists would chafe at the restrictions, but others would value the dependability of funding.
Other young scientists may leave the field entirely. Dr. Daley, the Harvard University-Children's Hospital researcher who had to freeze his cell cultures after his funding froze, worries about "the insidious impact of this kind of ruling on the decisions scientists make – and students – to go into certain fields. You retool your career. "
Spence, freshly re-funded, is so far sticking with his research. Even if there's another reversal, his NIH funding is safe for a year. "It's been a ride, that's for sure," Spence says. "Not a fun ride, but it's been a ride."