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The Great California Boondoggle

 
In November, "values voters" returned President Bush to the White House and increased pro-life votes in both the Senate and House.

All in all, those allied against unborn life had little to cheer about on election night. Their one bright spot was the passage of California's Proposition 71, which established a state "constitutional right" to engage in human embryonic stem cell research and human cloning – and funded that "right" at a cost of $6 billion ($3 billion for research and $3 billion interest on the bonds). But already the luster of "Prop 71" is gone, and it's beginning to look more like a black hole into which California taxpayers' money will disappear without returns or accountability.

How were voters in financially-strapped California hoodwinked into approving the measure? The simple answer is that over $25 million from venture capitalists, highly politicized patient advocacy groups, and wealthy individuals flooded the media with promises of cures and appeals to compassion. Those on the side of morality, fiscal responsibility, and fact-based science raised barely $400,000 to inject a little reality into the debate.

Cures! Compassion! Future business school marketing classes can use "Prop 71" as a case study in how to create demand for a lousy product by extravagant promises and appeals to consumers' vanity: "I'm a caring person. I voted to cure people!" We heard Ron Reagan make these same appeals in his prime-time speech at the Democratic Convention last summer. Commentator Charles Krauthammer, MD sums up Reagan's sales pitch this way: "On the one side are the forces of good, on the verge of curing such terrible afflictions as Parkinson's, diabetes and spinal-cord injury. On the other are the forces of reaction and superstition who, slaves to a primitive religiosity, would condemn millions to suffer and die. Or as Reagan subtly put it, the choice is 'between reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology'" (Krauthammer, "Why Lines Must Be Drawn," TIME, Aug.16, 2004).

Do Californians get anything in return for their $6 billion, apart from feeling good about themselves? They get an "Independent Citizens Oversight Board" comprised of 29 people who are anything but independent. Most have vested interests in biotechnology – California-based university researchers, for-profit biotech companies, and patient advocacy groups. They alone will decide where all the money goes, with priority given to those ethically-objectionable areas of research NOT funded by the federal government, notably human cloning and research on stem cell lines created by destroying human embryos after August 9, 2001. This means that the most clinically promising research, using stem cells from adult tissues and umbilical cord blood, will be neglected.

Only a super-majority of the California legislature can overrule funding decisions by the Oversight Board. The chief "safeguard" against self-dealing is that an individual member cannot vote funds to the institution with which he or she is affiliated. Not to worry, there's enough pork in that $3 billion barrel to be divvied up among all California universities and private biotech companies represented on the Board. The affiliated member's recusal will not deprive his/her employer of a slice of the pie.

Will Californians get cures for their money? Not likely. After over twenty years of research using animal embryonic stem cells, scientists have not solved two of the major obstacles to clinical use in humans – tissue rejection and tumor formation. All the astonishing cures and breakthroughs of recent years have occurred through adult stem cell therapies, including stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood.

Real People, Real Cures

Here's a sampling of real people who have greatly benefited from or been cured by adult stem cell therapies:

Spinal cord injuries

Laura Dominguez and Susan Fajt, both paralyzed in automobile accidents, can now walk with the aid of braces or a "walker" frame. Dr. Carlos Lima of Portugal has successfully treated them and dozens of other patients by transplanting stem cells from their own olfactory mucosa to the site of the spinal cord injury. Their rehabilitation continues, with the goal of being able to walk unassisted.

Melissa Holley, whose spinal cord was severed in an auto accident, was treated in Israel with macrophages from her own blood, and has regained muscle movement and bladder control.

Hwang Mi-soon of South Korea now walks with a frame after being paralyzed for 20 years. She received transplanted umbilical cord blood stem cells at the site of her spinal injury.

Heart attack damage

Dmitri Bonnville and perhaps 100 other patients in the U.S., Germany, Brazil, and France have been treated with their own stem cells to regenerate heart muscle tissue that "died" during a heart attack or injury. The heart's pumping ability was greatly improved in most cases.

Corneal regeneration

Michael May (blind 43 years), Jon Newton (blind 30 years), and Shawn Smith (blind 10 years) have had their vision restored, as have 16 other patients in the U.S. and Taiwan following limbal stem cell transplantation.

Diabetes

Over 200 Type I Diabetes patients no longer have to take insulin, after receiving pancreatic islet cells from cadavers under the "Edmonton Protocol" developed in Canada.

Crohn's Disease

Kathy Duffey and at least 3 other patients have been cured of this life-impairing disease after treatment with stem cells from their own blood.

Systemic Lupus

An 18-year-old girl was cured, and 90% of 18 other patients are in remission or improved following treatment with their own blood stem cells.

Multiple Sclerosis

David Hassenpflug's condition improved after being treated with stem cells from his own blood; he has no more pain in his legs and hips.

Parkinson's

Dennis Turner's symptoms improved over 80% after receiving a transplant of his own neuronal stem cells from Dr. Michel Levesque of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was virtually symptom-free for 4 years; now his symptoms have begun to recur on the side of his brain left untreated, and he is urging support for broader clinical trials.

Leukemia

Savannah Jantsch, Makenzie Brawner, Patrizia Duarte and hundreds of other leukemia patients are free of leukemia after treatment with umbilical cord stem cells or stem cells taken from their own, or a donor's, blood or bone marrow.

Sickle-cell anemia

In 1998, then 12-year-old Keone Penn was expected to live only five more years due to an extreme form of sickle cell anemia. Doctors at the University of Pittsburgh cured him by replacing his blood with stem cells from umbilical cord blood which grew new blood cells for him. More than 200 patients have undergone similar therapy with an 80-85% success rate.

Adult stem cell therapies also have cured or substantially improved the condition of patients with the following conditions: ovarian cancer, breast cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, SCIDS ("Bubble Boy" Syndrome), Hurler's Syndrome, scleromyxedema, and brittle bone disease (including babies cured by therapies in utero!).

Broader Impact of Proposition 71

If Proposition 71 did nothing more than enrich biotech researchers at the expense of gullible taxpayers, it would be bad enough. Unfortunately, its consequences are far-reaching. Creating human embryos by cloning for destructive research was legal in California before Prop-osition 71, but it's not the type of activity private investors are eager to fund. Now that a constitutional provision promises funding, the only remaining impedi-ment to the mass exploitation of embryonic humans is the conscience of biotech researchers. Enough said.

What's worse, the California initiative has prompted officials in other states to propose additional funding for human embryonic stem cell research. Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle announced a new $750 million initiative in human embryonic stem cell research in mid-November. New Jersey's acting Governor Richard Codey has promised to expand that state's human embryo research funding plans to better compete with California. Speakers of both the Massachusetts House and Senate now favor legislation endorsing human embryonic stem cell research. They are considering tax credits and other incentives to attract more biotech companies to Massachusetts. A measure to endorse and fund human embryonic stem cell research in Illinois, however, was narrowly defeated on November 18.

An important step toward halting this mad rush into a brave new world would be for Congress to ban all human cloning. In February 2003, the House of Representatives voted 241-155 (38 not voting) to do just that, but Senators have not brought cloning legislation to the floor. The consequences of their failure to act grow more serious daily. 



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