Fool me twice: California’s stem cell fiasco

They’re BAAAACK….for more of your money

Proponents of embryonic stem cell experimentation are attempting to resurrect the failed California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), originally launched in 2004 under Proposition 71. A new bond measure, which will appear on the November ballot as Proposition 14, will cost taxpayers nearly $8 billion, including interest.

The Prop 71 campaign was riddled with misrepresentations, deception, and outright fraud. So what has changed since 2004 that would warrant another round of funding for CIRM? In a word: nothing.

The primary justification for creating a state-funded stem cell program was a 2001 ban on federal funding for research using new human embryonic stem cell (HESC) lines. The brain trust behind Prop 71 insisted that new HESC lines were needed to reap the magnificent benefits of stem cell research. The Obama administration lifted the restrictions in 2009, so one would think that by now we should see substantial progress in the eradication of diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and a slew of other conditions for which HESC therapies were promised. Since that time, CIRM and other entities, including the federal government, have spent billions on embryonic stem cell research, yet actual cures remain elusive. MIT’s Technology Review reports that “no field of biotechnology has promised more and delivered less in the way of treatments than embryonic stem cells.”[i]

CIRM’s boastful tagline is “Created by Californians. Curing the World,” yet the Institute’s own website fails to mention a single successful treatment using embryonic stem cells. Sixteen years into the debacle, it still couches its research in nebulous terms. CIRM-funded research “could generate treatments…could help people with kidney disease…could be a potential cure…” without an actual cure anywhere on the horizon.

The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) admits that “the range of diseases for which there are proven treatments based on stem cells is still extremely small.” In its Patient Handbook, the ISSCR warns patients that it has grave concerns about the hype surrounding alleged therapies using HESCs that “are being sold around the world before they have been proven safe and effective.”[ii]

Even the San Francisco Chronicle—not exactly a pro-life outlet—is critical of California’s new initiative. In its comprehensive investigation of CIRM, the Chronicle reported, “Not a single federally approved therapy has resulted from CIRM-funded science. The predicted financial windfall has not materialized.” Moreover, the Chronicle reports that the exaggerated promise of “miracle treatments” has spawned a “thriving for-profit industry of clinics offering dubious stem cell therapies based on half-baked science…defying attempts at government regulation.”[iii]

Nevertheless, CIRM continues to make outlandish claims that it is a boon to California’s economy. This was a key part of its sales pitch in 2004. Prop 71 financier and former CIRM Board Chair Robert Klein assured voters that the state would recoup part of its $3 billion investment and “receive up to $1 billion in royalties from successful inventions and therapies.”[iv]

CIRM Governing Board Chair Dr. Jonathan Thomas alleges CIRM has provided “huge economic benefits to the state”[v] in the form of sales revenue and new jobs, but a recent report issued by the Legislative Analyst’s Office found that the state has only collected “a few hundred thousand dollars in invention-related income” since 2004.[vi] Thomas also claims that CIRM has “absolutely revolutionized medicine,”[vii] which is a blatant falsehood.

In no way are we suggesting that Californians support research using HESCs even if cures were imminent. Proposition 71 not only funded CIRM, it included a “clone and kill” provision that allows researchers to clone human beings for the purpose of extracting their stem cells for research. The process of removing the cells is 100% fatal for the tiny research subjects. Under the law, any “leftover” human embryos not used for research must be destroyed.

Cloning for stem cell experimentation involves replacing the nucleus of a human egg with a somatic (body) cell. So, in addition to the problem of creating human beings solely for lethal experimentation, cloning human beings for embryonic stem cell research creates a moral hazard in that it requires a huge store of human eggs. These are donated by women who are told they can help “save lives.” What they are not told is that their altruism may come at an enormous cost. The process of egg harvesting is fraught with ethical and physical complications, including infection and an elevated risk of certain types of cancers.[viii]

The Center for Genetics and Society, an advocacy organization that opposes the commodification of human beings is highly critical of cloning-based stem cell experimentation, saying, “it is a very speculative, largely unsuccessful path and one whose goals are rapidly being achieved by an alternative method.”[ix] This alternative method uses patients’ own stem cells, in some cases “reprogramed” to behave like HESCs.

It is not necessary to destroy living human beings and subject women to dangerous procedures in order to reap the potential benefits of stem cell research.

A COVID patient in San Diego who was comatose and near death was successfully treated with bone marrow stem cells.[x] A researcher with Parkinson’s disease is able to resume his former activities after being treated with his own stem cells.[xi] The cover of CIRM’s 2016 Annual Report features 5-year old Evangelina Padilla Vaccaro, who suffered from a potentially fatal immune disorder, is now able to live a normal life after undergoing stem cell treatment.[xii] What CIRM does not emphasize is that Evangelina was treated with her own reengineered stem cells, not with stem cells from human embryos.

Still, CIRM insists that adult stem cells, unlike embryonic stem cells, are “very restricted in what they can do.”[xiii] This is simply untrue. Researchers have found that reprogrammed adult stem cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells, “are molecularly and functionally equivalent” to embryonic stem cells.[xiv]

Life Legal filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Proposition 71, in part because the committee created to oversee CIRM was not under the authority of the State, as required by California’s Constitution. Although we did not prevail, the issues we raised were later reported by multiple media outlets, which found that CIRM’s board had exercised “improper and potentially illegal influence on the allocation of public funds.”[xv] These problems will only be magnified with additional funding. In his statement opposing Prop 14 former CIRM board member Jeff Sheehy writes, “I continue to have serious concerns around Board member conflicts of interest, with the majority of the Board coming from institutions that have received the bulk of CIRM’s spending.”[xvi] We anticipate that further ethical and constitutional violations will arise under Prop 14 and we are prepared to take legal action if the initiative should pass.

Now that CIRM is out of money and looking to California taxpayers to rescue it, we can expect even more deception and manipulation from those who want us to prop up its unethical and unproven experimentation. Life Legal strongly urges Californians to vote no on Prop 14. Embryonic stem cell enthusiasts, promising “cures around the corner,” fooled us once. Don’t let them fool us again.

Life Legal Defense Foundation is a pro-life, non-profit law firm. Our mission is to give innocent and helpless human beings of any age, particularly unborn children, a trained and committed defense against the threat of death, and to support their advocates in the nation’s courtrooms.


[i] https://www.technologyreview.com/2016/08/12/7565/will-embryonic-stem-cells-ever-cure-anything/

[ii] https://www.closerlookatstemcells.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/isscr-patient-handbook-english_ltr_17nov2016_web-only.pdf

[iii] https://projects.sfchronicle.com/2018/stem-cells/politics/

[iv] https://www.sfgate.com/opinion/article/Undue-influence-at-the-stem-cell-institute-3235187.php

[v] [v] https://www.cirm.ca.gov/sites/default/files/files/about_cirm/CIRM%202019-2020%2018%20Month%20Report.pdf

[vi] https://lao.ca.gov/ballot/2020/Prop14-110320.pdf

[vii] https://labusinessjournal.com/news/2018/jan/12/biotech-seeks-5b-more-stem-cells-healthcare/

[viii] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/10/well/live/are-there-long-term-risks-to-egg-donors.html

[ix] https://www.geneticsandsociety.org/biopolitical-times/cirm-wont-give-eggs-cloning-based-work

[x] https://www.10news.com/news/coronavirus/experimental-covid-treatment-may-have-saved-mans-life

[xi] https://www.statnews.com/2020/05/12/medical-first-parkinsons-brain-cell-transplant-stem-cells/

[xii] https://www.cirm.ca.gov/about-cirm/2016-annual-report

[xiii] https://www.cirm.ca.gov/patients/myths-and-misconceptions-about-stem-cell-research

[xiv] https://www.nature.com/articles/nbt.3388

[xv] https://www.sfgate.com/opinion/article/Undue-influence-at-the-stem-cell-institute-3235187.php

[xvi] http://californiastemcellreport.blogspot.com/2020/06/text-of-sheehys-statement-on-his.html

Author: Life Legal

The Life Legal Defense Foundation is a non-profit law firm that specializes in the defense of vulnerable human life, especially life in the womb.

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