Statement on Funding for Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund

By Nancy Paltell, Ph.D, Associate Director of Respect for Life

Senate Budget and Taxation Subcommittee, February 22, 2010 and House Appropriations Subcommittee, February 18, 2010

This testimony is offered as encouragement to the General Assembly to monitor how money from the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund (MSCRF) is being spent. This lawmaking body should place an emphasis on putting more money into applied research, which is likely to treat patients sooner rather than later, and less money into basic research, which is funded by the federal government. (Read the attachments here).

How many of you read the annual report published by the Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission? How many of you attended either of the symposia in which Maryland researchers presented the results of the stem cell research funded with state tax dollars? Is there any legislative oversight of whether or not the money is being spent to produce cures for the many Maryland residents inflicted with devastating diseases or injuries?

Basic: adjective. Constituting or serving as the basis or starting point

Applied: adjective. Put to practical use, e.g., applied sciences

As the definition from Webster’s Dictionary implies, basic research is considered very close to the beginning, far removed from use in patients. Applied research takes those basic concepts and applies them so they have practical use. In the case of medical research, it takes the basic research to the next step and uses it to produce treatments that can actually be used to relieve patients’ suffering.

When the MSCRF was started, the people of Maryland were promised cures. They were told that embryonic stem cells would produce miracle cures that would treat every disease known to mankind. Only through the efforts of the Maryland Catholic Conference and Maryland Right to Life was the fund expanded so that research using non-embryonic stem cells, such as adult stem cells, could also be funded.

Three years after its inception, it’s important to look at whether or not the MSCRF is delivering on the promises made to the people of Maryland. We maintain that it is not. (Read the attachments here).

Attachment 1 shows the breakdown of how the large-scale grants, the investigator initiated grants, were awarded in 2009. Not a single grant went to applied research, such as adult stem cell research. Fully 100% of the $9.3 million went to basic research using stem cells that cannot be injected into patients (pluripotent stem cells). It’s encouraging to see that half the money was invested into iPS research, which doesn’t have the ethical issues associated with embryonic stem cell research, but both iPS and embryonic stem cell research use pluripotent stem cells, which are known to cause tumors. See Attachment 2, the abstract of a project funded by the MSCRF at $1.73 million, to see confirmation that embryonic stem cells form tumors. Worldwide, many millions of dollars have been invested to try to figure out how to stop embryonic stem cells from forming a certain type of tumor called a teratoma, but to no avail. Adult stem cells, however, do NOT form tumors; hence they may be safely injected into human patients.

Attachment 3 is a recent article published on www.investors.com. It discusses the realization by the state of California that embryonic stem cells are obsolete. The California program was supposed to be a 10-year program to produce “miracle” cures for California citizens. Yet halfway through the program, very few treatments have resulted and the people of California are seeking an explanation. Therefore, California has shifted its emphasis away from embryonic stem cells to adult stem cells, since only adult stem cells have actually treated patients. Worldwide, to date all the “miracle” cures that have come from stem cells have come from adult or umbilical cord blood stem cells. California’s most recent round of grants ($240 million) in October funded 14 projects, of which only four involved embryonic stem cells.

In Maryland, we have had some significant success stories (Attachments 4 and 5). It’s important to note that the applied research projects that are either treating patients or poised to start a clinical trial were funded at very low levels through exploratory grants. Dr. Sergei Atamas, University of Maryland, received a grant of $225,000 and has treated over 150 patients suffering from tendon damage. His research uses adult stem cells. Dr. Hockin Xu, University of Maryland, received a grant of just $200,000 and is using adult stem cells to treat bone damage.

Also noteworthy is the fact that the one researcher who was funded by the MSCRF and named “Innovator of the Year 2009” by the Daily Record was a researcher using adult stem cells – Dr. Hockin Xu. See Attachment 6.

Although the clear driving force for the creation of the MSCRF was to bring cures to suffering Maryland residents, another oft-stated reason was to encourage Maryland scientists to stay here and not relocate to California. Consider the irony in these facts:

• Dr. Eduardo Marban was formerly the Chief of Cardiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. His research included the use of adult stem cells to treat damaged heart muscle.
• In FY 2007, his research team applied for a grant from the MSCRF and was rejected.
• Dr. Marban is now director of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles, California.
• Dr. Marban recently received a grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in support of his applied research using adult stem cells to repair the heart following a heart attack (see Attachment 7).

Maryland’s tunnel-vision focus on basic research is mystifying considering that a) the people of Maryland were promised cures and b) basic research is fully funded by the federal government. The MSCRF should focus on the valuable niche of funding applied research so that the state can fulfill its promise to constituents and avoid duplicating federally-funded research. In tough economic times, when services to citizens are being cut and worthy necessary programs remain unfunded, funding of basic research should be dramatically cut and a portion of that money should instead be invested in applied research, research that is already in clinical trials or poised to start a clinical trial. The people of Maryland were promised cures and it’s time for Maryland, like California, to change its stem cell research objectives in order to fulfill the promises made in 2006.