The third and most recent round of grants awarded earlier this year for stem cell research by the state of Minnesota tracks a pattern established with the two earlier rounds of grants: a noticeable lack of support for human embryonic stem cell research.
Regenerative Medicine Minnesota (RMM) awarded 10 grants for 2017, totaling just under $5 million.
Of those, nine went to research projects that did not involve the use of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). The description offered for the remaining research project to receive a grant was ambiguous, referring to “pluripotent stem cells” which could be either hESCs or non-embryonic, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).
This follows a precedent set by the two earlier rounds of grants RMM awarded in 2015 and 2016. In both earlier rounds of grants, no research project using hESCs received funding.
Minnesota’s current round of grants for stem cell research also reflects a pattern seen elsewhere: among those states that provide funds for stem cell research, two of the most important, California and Maryland, have also been trending away from hESC research in favor of adult and induced pluripotent stem cell research and other avenues of non-embryonic stem cell research.
As noted previously on this website, California and Maryland began issuing grants for stem cell research in 2007, when such research was in its earliest stages and when the hype surrounding the alleged therapeutic benefits of embryonic stem cells was at its height. The “scientific consensus,” as it were, was that embryonic stem cells would lead to near-miraculous cures for any number of diseases and conditions; then House speaker Nancy Pelosi judged that embryonic stem cells possessed “an almost biblical power to cure.”
Given this environment, it is not surprising that California and Maryland, in the first several years of grants, tended to strongly favor human embryonic stem cell research over non-embryonic, adult stem cell research.
Minnesota, however, did not issue its first grants until 2015. By then, adult stem cells were proving far more promising in their therapeutic potential and application than initially supposed, while hESCs were proving far more disappointing.
Moreover, the advent of induced pluripotent stem cells in 2007 changed the entire playing field for stem cell research. The discovery of a relatively easy method to produce such cells gave researchers access to a virtually unlimited supply of fully pluripotent, embryo-like stem cells, but without the ethical baggage surrounding human embryonic stem cell research. As this website has noted, recent developments give iPSCs a credible claim to being the new gold standard for stem cell research. Just this month, for example, researchers successfully treated monkeys for symptoms of Parkinson’s and announced their intention to begin human trials within a year.
Given these developments, by the time Minnesota began issuing stem cell research grants in 2015, it only made sense, both from a scientific and financial perspective, that the state should largely steer clear of funding hESCR. Given the progress being made elsewhere with adult and induced pluripotent stem cells, Minnesota apparently decided not to gamble with its citizens’ money by funding hESCR.
Such research is no longer the sure bet it once was believed to be, and ethical approaches seem to be yielding fresh fruit almost daily. This is bad news for yesterday’s prognosticators, but great news for today’s patients.
Gene Tarne is Senior Analyst for the Charlotte Lozier Institute.