After President Barack Obama made an executive order allowing federal funds to support embryonic stem cell research, scientists at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla had a ceremony to celebrate.
They didn’t pop champagne bottles. They ripped off stickers.
They had used the stickers to mark equipment paid for with federal funds, so researchers knew not to use it on embryonic stem cells.
“Now, we might have to have a ceremony pasting those stickers back on,” said Dr. Evan Snyder, the director of the Stem Cells and Regenerative Biology Center at Sanford-Burnham.
This summer, a federal judge said Obama’s new rule violates a federal law blocking the use of government money on research that involves destroying or discarding human embryos. So the judge once again put a stop to federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
The government appealed the decision, and on Sept. 28 an appeals court said funding for the research could continue while a final ruling is worked out. Local scientists are nervously waiting for that verdict, and in the meantime could face a revised injunction stopping funding again.
“Nobody ever saw this coming,” Snyder said. “Everybody assumed this was settled law.”
Embryonic stem cells have long been a contentious issue because they are taken from four- or five-day-old human embryos. Scientists can control the growth of these cells to create new types of cells that could treat diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Although these embryos are usually made by fertilization clinics, opponents see their use as a destruction of human life.
A recent New York Times story said the federal funding block could cost “about 1,300 jobs, as well as grants from the National Institutes of Health that this year total more than $200 million and support more than 200 projects.”
But in California, the situation is a little different.
In 2004, voters passed Proposition 71, which established the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, to give out $3 billion in grants over 10 years for embryonic stem cell research.
CIRM provides California researchers with a “safety net,” Snyder said, because they can use this California-only funding for the embryonic stem cell portions of their grants.
For example, Zhuohua Zhang, an associate professor at Sanford-Burnham, is studying how the degeneration of the nervous system happens in patients with Parkinson’s.
Since 2007, Zhang has received NIH grants to study the molecules that cause this degeneration. To do his research, he grows stem cells with the same type of genetic mutations found in Parkinson’s patients so he can follow how the disease progresses. But before Obama’s executive order, Zhang could not use NIH money to do the stem cell portion of his grant, so he instead uses a separate CIRM grant to fund his work with stem cells.
Although the state’s institute does protect researchers like Zhang, it doesn’t completely insulate them.
Some California scientists use federal money for their work, and California scientists’ collaborations with researchers outside the state were stalled. In a CIRM survey of 100 California scientists, 22 percent said federal money funded at least part of their embryonic stem cell research, and 65 percent of those federally funded scientists said they’ll have to cut jobs in their labs if the ban remains in place. Only 5 percent of scientists surveyed said the ruling would have no impact on their research.
But despite the complications, Snyder said California institutes like Sanford-Burnham are lucky to have CIRM funding. Without it, Sanford-Burnham could lose between $10 and $20 million in funding this year, or about 10 percent of its annual budget.
“No other state or nation has what we have here,” he said. “CIRM insulates researchers from having to watch the political winds like a weatherman.”
When I spoke with Snyder on Wednesday, he was on his way to the National Institutes of Health headquarters in Maryland to review grants that had been set aside because of the stem cell lawsuit. The injunction two weeks ago pulled those grants back into the running, at least for now.
“We’re trying to rush them through before any decisions are made,” Snyder said. “But even if this episode is settled, younger scientists will be forever shaken. I think people will say, ‘Why go into a field that could disappear on the whim of whoever is in Congress?’”