Voters Approve Prop. 14, Continuing Funding for Stem Cell Research

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Evangelina Padilla-Vaccaro, now cured of 'bubble baby' disease, playing in a public park sometime in the mid 2010s. The bubble around her is for fun, not to keep her separated from others. (CIRM)

California voters have approved Proposition 14, set to continue funding of the state's stem cell research agency. With 51% of the votes, it was the narrowest margin of victory for any of this year’s 12 ballot questions, according to the Associated Press.

The measure’s passage guarantees the continuation of the state's stem cell agency, the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. The proposition authorizes the sale of $5.5 billion in bonds to replenish funding for the agency, which was first created in 2004 by a previous proposition and is now running out of money.

The Proposition 14 contest was one of the lowest-stakes battles of the California election in terms of finances: Supporters spent about $16 million on its behalf. By contrast, backers of Proposition 22 — Uber, Lyft, and other gig economy companies — poured well over $200 million into the race, an unprecedented amount of money for a California proposition.

Yes on 14 was largely backed by Robert Klein, a Palo Alto real estate developer who had also directed the campaign that created the stem cell agency through Proposition 71 in 2004. Proposition 14 was helped by a lack of organized opposition, though editorials from prominent newspapers in the state mostly endorsed a 'No' vote.

CIRM was created during a time in the early 2000s when the promise of stem cell and regenerative medicine excited both scientists and the public. Proposition 71 authorized the sale of $3 billion in bonds to create an agency that specifically funded human embryonic stem cell research.

The measure was in part a response to a 2001 ban by President George W. Bush on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research after a campaign to end it by anti-abortion activists. That ban was later overturned by President Obama. The Trump administration has not reinstated the ban, but has added lengthy paperwork and review requirements.

Currently the National Institutes of Health funds some basic stem cell research, spending about $2 billion a year, with $321 million of that going toward human embryonic stem cell research.

While CIRM has not, to date, funded research into any drugs or therapies for general use, it has seen some notable successes, the most “spectacular” being "clinical trials that have saved the lives of what [CIRM says] are 40 children,” said David Jensen, author of the California Stem Cell Report blog.

Those children were born with severe combined immunodeficiency, commonly known as "bubble baby syndrome," a rare, generally fatal condition in which a child is born without a working immune system. An FDA-approved gene therapy that grew out of CIRM-funded research can now cure the disease by taking a patient’s own blood stem cells and modifying them to correct the mutation and repair the immune system.

The FDA has also approved two drugs for rare blood cancers developed with CIRM funding, though insiders disagree about how directly CIRM money was involved.

The proposition expands the scope of the agency's mission as well as the size of its board of directors. It requires CIRM to now  spend specified amounts on certain illnesses. Specifically, the agency will earmark $1.5 billion for diseases of the brain and central nervous system, such as autism and schizophrenia, regardless of how promising the early-stage research is.

The state currently owes about $1 billion toward the debt created by Proposition 71.

The price tag to pay off the new bond will be about $260 million per year for about 30 years.