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ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Prompts A Deeper Look at Stem Cell Research


Gene Tarne - published on 09/09/14

, in November, 2011. Geron, the company sponsoring the trial, cited financial difficulties in calling it off , but others were skeptical and called attention to other factors contributing to the trial’s demise, such as “the potential pitfalls associated with specific types of stem cell technologies – namely, embryonic stem cells…” (Note: California-based Asterias Biotherapeutics Inc. recently announced that it would resume this trial, picking up where Geron left off.)

Another telling development is the way state agencies that fund stem cell research have been devoting more and more resources to non-embryonic stem cell research.

Apart from the NIH, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is the nation’s largest funder of stem cell research. CIRM was approved by voter referendum in 2004, with a mission to give priority funding to hESCR. True to its mission, in its first two rounds of grants awarded in 2007, CIRM funded just over 100 research projects using hESCs and/or Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT, i.e., human cloning). No funds went to adult stem cell research projects.  

Over the years, however, CIRM has more and more shifted resources so that by 2009, up until today, CIRM has funded substantially more adult, induced pluripotent and other non-embryonic avenues of stem cell research. (here, here, here and here). Noticing this shift, in 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported:

“For 3 1/2 years, the agency focused on the basic groundwork needed to someday use human embryonic stem cells to replace body parts damaged by injury or disease. Such cures are still far in the future. Now the institute has a more immediate goal: boosting therapies that are much further along in development and more often rely on less glamorous adult stem cells.”

In 2012, the first CIRM-funded project to receive FDA approval for clinical trial was announced—a treatment for heart disease using adult stem cells.

A similar trend can also be seen in Maryland, which also provides state funds for hESCR.  The first round of grants, awarded in 2007, strongly favored hESCR. By 2013, 90 percent of the grants awarded went to non-embryonic stem cell research projects.  

President Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Committee (NBAC) was the first, in 1999, to recommend federal funding for hESCR — but it did so conditionally.

Recognizing the legitimacy of the ethical concerns raised by such research, NBAC said that destroying human embryos for research was “justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research” (at pdf pg. 78). While judging such alternatives were not available at that time, NBAC said that judgment could change as it “is a matter that must be revisited continually as science advances.”

Clearly those alternatives exist—so much so that the non-embryonic adult and induced pluripotent stem cells “alternatives” are clearly outpacing hESC in providing actual therapeutic benefits to human patients.

Gene Tarne is a senior analyst with the Charlotte Lozier Institute ( He has been involved with the life issues for over 20 years.

Note: Should you participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge and want to contribute to ethically sound, non-embryonic stem cell research, here are some options:

The Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center (MSCTC) at the University of Kansas Medical Center is only a year old, but is starting an increasing number of clinical trials and educational efforts. One potential future trial would be using adult stem cells for ALS.  Dr. Rick Barohn, an internationally recognized expert on ALS, recently joined the Advisory Board for the Center. The MSCTC does not do any embryonic or aborted fetal stem cell research, only adult and non-embryonic stem cell research and clinical trials. To donate click the “Make a Gift” link in the left column of their web page.

The John Paul II Medical Research Institute in Iowa City is doing research in several areas including ALS, and does not support embryonic stem cell research. To donate, click the button for “Donate Now” on their main web page

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