A stem cell anniversary: 18 years ago today that the US initiated funding of human embryonic stem cell research.
August 9, 2001 was a big day for me. George W. Bush was the US president, and it was an understatement to say that I was not very fond of his policies; but that day he defined my career for the next 18 years.
That day Bush gave an 11-minute speech (see Youtube of the video below) at his Texas ranch that directed the NIH to start funding research on human embryonic stem cells (hESCs).
He made an awkward compromise that allowed federal funding for hESCs that already existed, but would not fund research on hESC lines made after that moment, 8:12 pm CDT. Since all of those existing hESCs were made with private funds, it was a motley group that met in 2002 at the NIH to discuss how the funding would be distributed- among them were Jamie Thomson from Wisconsin, a handful of others from companies and institutions in the US, Sweden and Australia…and me.
I was at the NIH meeting because I had started a company several years earlier, and at the time of Bush’s speech, I had initiated derivation of cell lines from 9 human embryos using private investment. My company, Arcos BioScience, was running on a shoestring because the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) controlled Jamie Thomson’s 1998 patent that gave them ownership of all human embryonic stem cells, no matter who had made them. Their patent licensing fee was more than my company’s entire budget. To survive, a year later my company merged with another company (story in WSJ 2002), which later merged with another, and another; the much-merged company eventually took the name ViaCyte, and is currently conducting clinical trials for an hESC-based cell therapy for Type I diabetes.
We did get one of those first NIH grants for research on hESCs in 2002, and then in 2004 Phil Schwartz and I got a grant to run an NIH laboratory course on hESCs. That grant supported my return to academia at the Burnham Institute in 2004. I was in the right place at the right time when CIRM (California Institute for Regenerative Medicine) began funding hESC research a couple of years later. Now 18 years have passed, the WARF patent expired in 2015, and my focus on pluripotent stem cells has taken me through professorships at Burnham and at the Scripps Research Institute to the company my colleagues and I started last year, Aspen Neuroscience, which plans a clinical trial for patient-specific iPSC-derived neuron replacement therapy for Parkinson’s disease.
Here are some words from Bush’s speech:
“Based on preliminary work that has been privately funded, scientists believe further research using stem cells offers great promise that could help improve the lives of those who suffer from many terrible diseases, from juvenile diabetes to Alzheimer’s, from Parkinson’s to spinal cord injuries. …research on embryonic stem cells offers the most promise because these cells have the potential to develop in all of the tissues in the body. Scientists further believe that rapid progress in this research will come only with federal funds. Federal dollars help attract the best and brightest scientists. They ensure new discoveries are widely shared at the largest number of research facilities, and that the research is directed toward the greatest public good.
I have given this issue a great deal of thought, prayer, and considerable reflection…
As we go forward, I hope we will always be guided by both intellect and heart, by both our capabilities and our conscience. I have made this decision with great care, and I pray it is the right one. Thank you for listening. Good night, and God bless America”.
I never thought I would say this, but besides the NIH and CIRM, I owe thanks to President Bush for supporting my journey along this path.