What You Need to Know About Prop. 14, The Stem Cell Research Bond (Transcript)

A scientist introduces embryonic stem cells into a mouse embryo. (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images) (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images)

If reading through the statewide ballot propositions has made your head spin, you are in the right place! From Oct. 1 - 16, Bay Curious is exploring the 12 statewide ballot propositions in our Prop Fest series. This episode tackles Prop 14, the stem cell research bond.

Transcript

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Theme music

Olivia Allen-Price [00:00:37] Today, we take on Proposition 14. It's a bond that would fund stem cell research in the state. On your ballot will read in part like this...

Voice 1 [00:00:46] Proposition 14 authorizes $5.5 billion in state general obligation bonds to fund grants from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, educational, nonprofit and private entities for stem cell and other medical research.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:01:03] We'll explain what all that means, who's for it, who's against it, and what else you need to know, all in today's show. I'm Olivia Allen-Price and this is Bay Curious Prop Fest, Proposition 14.

End theme music

Olivia Allen-Price [00:01:20] KQED science reporter Danielle Venton has been covering Prop 14, The stem cell research bond. Welcome, Danielle.

Danielle Venton [00:01:27] Hello, Olivia.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:01:28] So let's start with, what is a bond in general? How do they work?

Danielle Venton [00:01:32] Government bonds are a way to raise money for projects that a government wants to do now, but pay for over time. Think of them as a loan. So, for this particular bond, the state of California would pay that loan back with interest over 30 years out of the general fund, which is supported by taxpayers. So, essentially, when you vote yes on a bond, you're saying, yes, let's use public funds for this project.

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Olivia Allen-Price [00:01:55] OK, so what exactly does this bond fund?

Danielle Venton [00:01:59] This would fund $5.5 billion  in stem cell research and treatments in California. Some of the diseases that stem cell research is seeking to cure or treat include cancer, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, blindness, and even COVID-19. I spoke recently with a guy named Jake Javier. He supports this bond initiative because he knows firsthand how life changing stem cell research can be.

Jake Javier [00:02:25] I am in my last year at Cal Poly.

Danielle Venton [00:02:28] So, Jake grew up locally in Danville and was just graduating high school when he suffered a life altering injury.

Jake Javier [00:02:35] On the last day of high school, I drove in to a pool and hit my head on the bottom and broke my neck and was immediately paralyzed.

Danielle Venton [00:02:47] He says his injury was complete, with very little hope of recovery. But a doctor at Stanford reached out to Jake and his family and said, you can be part of this clinical trial where we, with a one time surgery, will inject stem cells into the damaged area and you may possibly see some benefits.

Danielle Venton [00:03:07] Now, Jake is still injured.

Jake Javier [00:03:09] I'm a quadriplegic. I use a wheelchair.

Danielle Venton [00:03:11] But he says after the surgery, he noticed more movement in his arms, in his hands.

Jake Javier [00:03:17] So, I mean, with my injury, I'm at a level where I would normally not have any function at all in my hands and very, very little function like in my triceps and things like that. Muscles that are really important for functionality and, you know, being able to get through day to day activities that could help me push myself around more, help me transfer in and out of my chair independently. And then also, I notice, you know, I got some some finger movement. It doesn't seem like much, but even that little movement has helped me so much with picking things up and things like that. So it was really, I was really blessed to see that happen.

Danielle Venton [00:03:51] So he doesn't know how much of his recovery is due to the stem cells. How much is natural, or how much is due to physical therapy. But today he's able to live independently, to go to college – and he wants to pursue a career in medicine. And he is a big believer in stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and is really hoping that California voters will support this proposition.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:04:20] Now, what exactly are stem cells and how do they work, I guess?

Danielle Venton [00:04:25] Yeah, stem cells are types of cells that can be turned into any type of specialized cell. Scientists have known about them since the eighteen hundreds, but it wasn't until the late 90s that researchers developed a method to derive them from human embryos and grow them in a laboratory. And then people really began to get excited about their potential for medicine. Now these cells came from unused embryos created for in vitro fertilization, and they were donated with informed consent. But many anti-abortion groups felt that using the cells were tantamount to taking a human life. So in 2001, then President George W. Bush banned federal funding for any research using newly created stem cell lines.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:05:09] OK. And how does that get us now to bonds in California?

Danielle Venton [00:05:13] Well, Californians wanted to circumvent these federal restrictions, and in 2004 voted for a bond that gave the state $3 billion to create a research agency called the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM. There was a lot of public support for it. And it just felt like these wonderful cures could be right around the corner. Celebrities like Michael J. Fox appeared in TV commercials.

Michael J. Fox TV commercial [00:05:36] My most important role lately is as an advocate for patients, and for finding new cures for diseases. That's why I'm asking you to vote yes on Proposition 71, Stem Cell Research Initiative.

Danielle Venton [00:05:48] And the money for that research, that $3 billion, has now run out. And to continue their work, the stem cell advocacy group, Americans for Cures, is asking voters for more money.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:06:00] So we're basically voting on whether we want to refill the stem cell research piggy bank here.

Danielle Venton [00:06:05] Yeah, exactly. Some question if the state can afford this at this time when budgets are going to be so tight. Others have been disappointed by the slow pace of cures coming out of the field. Now, there are people who credit this research, such as Jake, with improving or restoring their health or the health of their loved ones. Or maybe they hope that one day it will, and they would balk at the idea that this is not worthy research. They point to achievements that the agency has funded. That includes effectively a cure for bubble baby disease. This is when someone is born without a functioning immune system. That mutation can now be corrected with genetically modified stem cells. And recently, just within the last year or so, the FDA approved two new treatments for blood cancer, developed with CIRM support. These achievements are what the agency points to when they're criticized for not having accomplished more. And they say the process of scientific discovery is long and unpredictable.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:07:04] Now, wasn't that Bush-era ban on stem cell research that you were talking about earlier – wasn't that overturned?

Danielle Venton [00:07:11] Yes, that was overturned by President Obama. However, there are current members of Congress who are lobbying President Trump to ban the research again. And if that happens, then California would be the only major player in stemcell research once again in the United States.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:07:30] All right, so who is supporting Prop 14?

Danielle Venton [00:07:32] Governor Gavin Newsom, for one. Many patient advocacy organizations and medical and research institutions, including the California Board of Regents. These people don't want to see the pace of this research slow. They want it to accelerate. The political action committee supporting this proposition is reporting more than six million dollars in contributions.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:07:53] All right. And what about the opposition? Who's against it?

Danielle Venton [00:07:55] Well, so far, there's no organized, funded opposition. There have been several newspaper editorials coming out against it, including locally, the Mercury News and the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. They basically say state bonds aren't the way to fund research and the situation isn't like it was in 2004 and that the institute should now seek other sources of funding and move forward as a nonprofit.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:08:19] All right, Danielle. Well, thanks, as always for your help.

Danielle Venton [00:08:21] My pleasure. Thanks.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:08:28] In a nutshell, a vote yes on Proposition 14 says you think Californians should give $5.5 billion to the state's stem cell research institute. That money will be raised by selling bonds, which the state would pay back, with interest, out of
the general fund over the next 30 years. A vote no means you think we shouldn't spend public money on this research.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:08:54] That's it on Proposition 14. We'll be back tomorrow with an episode on Prop 15. And oh, it is a doozy. Commercial property tax! A partial rollback of one of California's most controversial propositions! It's going to be fire. In the meantime, you can find more of KQED election coverage at KQED.org/elections. Two reminders on the way out: October 19th is the last day to register to vote and mail in ballots must be postmarked on or before November 3rd.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:09:28] Bay Curious is made in San Francisco at member supported KQED. I'm Olivia Allen-Price. See you tomorrow.

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