Dear Governor Rick Perry, Yesterday I came down very hard on you in a post for your visit to the Scripps Research Institute in California and the video that was made about it. (2020 update: Rick Perry is still plugging Celltex after 8 more years!)
Maybe I was a bit over the top…
However, it got me thinking.
I believe in all seriousness that you could make Texas an international leader in stem cells. As much as I personally and professionally believe in embryonic stem cell research, you do not have to publicly take such a position for you and Texas to lead the way on stem cells.
Here is my advice on the top 5 moves you could make, given with all due respect and seriousness:
1) Establish the Texas Agency on Stem Cells (TASC), a state agency on stem cells, and do it quickly: absolutely before the end of 2012. Establish a “TASC force” organizing committee, work for state funding (no taxes or initiatives to avoid challenges that CIRM faced), appoint a board, and launch this thing. Appoint a highly respected Texas researcher such as Sean Morrison or Ron DePinho to be the Chairperson of the board, but also include industry on the board (but careful who you appoint though–see #4 below). One of CIRM’s leaders once told me s/he didn’t like its acronym name and how it sounded. In contrast TASC is a very powerful name that could be pronounced “task” reflecting the hard work that it’ll be doing. The mission statement of TASC can be something like “Working to promote Texas leadership in advancing safe and effective stem cell treatments”. A relatively small influx of state cash could get the ball rolling.
2) Establish a Texas-led international human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell bank. Push for funding for this and with some luck become a world leader in this area. Ideally it would be part of TASC. There is a huge need for iPS cell banks. For example, CIRM is working in this area, but others such as Texas could and should make a major impact. In fact, Texas could be the world leader.
3) Push for a cooperative, but also healthily competitive relationship on stem cell research between Texas and California. Heck, your visit to Scripps could be the thing that gets the ball rolling on this one. Texas is a powerhouse in biomedical research including some great stem cell research and cancer stem cell research, but no state can go it alone. Not California and not Texas. Build a bridge to California. If you are really gutsy, privately reach out to CIRM even, but that is not absolutely necessary if you feel it is too politically risky for you as a GOP governor of a very conservative state. Even if you don’t connect with CIRM, learn lessons from their experiences both positively and negatively.
However, don’t take a back seat to us here in California. Try to make Texas the stem cell capital of the U.S. Work to recruit the top stem cell researchers to Texas. Your state already has the research chops and could likely land even more stem cell superstars in the coming years.
4) Disentangle yourself, Rick Perry, from Celltex and no matter if it pains you personally, do it publicly, and advocate for stem cell regulations that put patient safety first. You can be a fan of Celltex privately and of promoting stem cell enterprises, but many folks think it is unwise for a governor to advocate for one particular company, especially one founded by your own physician. Perhaps it is totally fine to do so, but some think it doesn’t look good. This separation would take guts, but again the stem cell community would admire you for it. As a bonus, you distance yourself just in case Celltex runs into some choppy regulatory waters or has other challenges that you don’t want to be in the same headline with. Also, who can argue with pushing for patient safety?
5) Advocate for the Regenerative Medicine Promotion Act. This is not an embryonic stem cell specific piece of legislation, but rather one that promotes regenerative medicine more generally and it is sponsored by your fellow GOP leader, Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA50). This puts you at the national level of promoting stem cell research.
Even if you only do some of these things, you help Texas get going on the road to competing with California to be the top dog state when it comes to stem cells. Also keep in mind that CIRM state funding will run out in a few years almost certainly and if Texas is moving aggressively now and in the next 5-10 years, Texas could become the leader. Of course I’m rooting for California, but I want what is best for Texas too and the U.S. as well as globally. Texas can be a key leader in that and so can you.
Paul Knoepfler, PhD
UC Davis School of Medicine