Proposition 14: an investment or a fraud?

December 4th, 2020. By Aiden Wong '22

Description of Prop 14 and what it will do.

Stem cells.

Description of California Institute of Regenerative Medicine and what it’s done.

Proposition 14

With the presidential election taking the spotlight in this year’s elections, the state and city propositions have flown under the radar. One in particular, Proposition 14, has especially been overlooked considering its hefty price tag: 5.5 billion dollars. Officially known as the Stem Cell Research Institute Bond Initiative (2020), Prop 14 asked voters to support the issuance of “$5.5 billion in general obligation bonds for the state’s stem cell research institute” (Ballotpedia). This “stem cell research institute” is called the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) which was created in 2004 by Proposition 71. With 51% of the vote, Prop 14 passed last month showing that Californians, albeit by a slim majority, still believe that stem cell research is worth the enormous costs. But what exactly are stem cells?

What are Stem Cells?

Discovered in the 20th century, stem cells are non-specialized cells that can develop into other cells, such as blood cells or nerve cells, and self-renew. Think of it like Eevee from Pokémon who can evolve into different specialties like Flareon and Jolteon. Because of their versatile and regenerative nature, doctors use stem cells to repair damaged organs and bones. Many scientists also believe stem cells may hold the answers to curing currently incurable diseases like Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Nevertheless, stem cell research is not without its controversy. Opponents criticize the idea of cloning limbs and body parts using stem cells, asserting that scientists should not try to “play God.” Furthermore, the extraction of stem cells from embryos, one of the ways stem cells are obtained, has always been a touchy subject. However, it’s important to note that there are other, less controversial methods of obtaining stem cells. Adult stem cells, also known as tissue stem cells, are cells obtained from developed tissue. These cells are multipotent, however, meaning that they can only develop into cells related to the source tissue. For example, an adult stem cell taken from bone marrow can only become blood cells, not liver cells.

What has CIRM accomplished?

Now that stem cells have been defined, let's take a look at what progress has been made in the past 16 years. One of the most promising experiments funded by the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine comes from the University of California, Irvine’s School of Medicine. Professor Henry Klassen has had success helping patients with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare eye disease that causes blindness, by using injections of stem cells to replace and repair damaged retinal cells in the patients’ eyes. However, Klassen admits that stem cells are not magical cures, saying that “patients will still need to continue receiving injections” (Klassen). Another success story took place at City of Hope, a cancer institute in Southern California. There, researcher John Zaia has pioneered a method of reprogramming an HIV patient’s immune cells to fight the infection. However, this too has had more success in the lab than in clinical trials. In one study of the procedure, only two percent of the patient’s immune cells were able to be reengineered. This limited success brings up an important point: Californian taxpayers are not funding abstract lab research; they’re funding real-world cures. So what has the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine accomplished in terms of tested medicines and therapies? Well, not much. While CIRM has funded breakthrough research, like the aforementioned progress in finding a cure for a form of blindness, it has only funded two FDA-approved drugs, both treating leukemia, out of the program’s 90 clinical trials. Furthermore, the CIRM has faced criticism for its use of funds. In the figure to the right, the San Francisco Chronicle tracks where Stanford, one of the largest beneficiaries of CIRM grants, has spent its money. As the chart shows, Stanford has spent a whopping $74 million on infrastructure while only $44 million has gone to clinical trials. This has left opponents wondering whether CIRM, and stem cell research as a whole, is worth spending 5.5 billion dollars on.

Nevertheless, the people of California have already made their decision to approve Proposition 14 and fund further stem cell research. It’ll take years, possibly even decades, to tell whether California’s bet will pay off.