As California Passes Prop 14, What Is Stem Cell Research and Why Is It Controversial?

Voters in California have approved Proposition 14, which will pump billions of dollars into the state's stem cell research program. The Associated Press called the vote on Thursday, with 51 percent of ballots for and 49 percent against.

The result will allow the state to borrow $5.5 billion from investors for its stem cell agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The money—which taxpayers will repay with interest over the next 30 years—will enable the institute to stay open, expand its research programs, and build new facilities.

Some $1.5 billion of the money will be spent researching conditions affecting the brain and central nervous system, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, epilepsy, and stroke.

What is stem cell research, and why is it controversial?

Unlike specialized cells—such as blood cells or bone cells—stem cells do not have a specific job. Think of them as the raw materials of our bodies. When they divide, they can either renew and make new stem cells, or turn into specialized cells.

Despite making headlines for years, stem cell research is still in its early stages, with some treatments that have appeared to have worked in animals now going into clinical trials. These include treatments for macular degeneration, a common cause of blindness, as well as stroke, Lou Gehrig's disease, and spinal cord injuries.

It is hoped growing stem cells into specialized cells could also one day be used to replace damaged tissue and organs, for instance by helping the pancreas produce insulin in people with diabetes.

Currently, stem bone marrow transplantation is the most common form of stem cell therapy, used to treat blood cancer patients. Stem cell therapy has also been used for grafts of corneal stem cells, as well as skin grafts for burns victims.

As well as creating treatments, stem cell research can also help scientists understand diseases. Observing the cells in a lab as they turn into specialized cells, for instance, can provide clues on how we develop certain conditions.

There are a number of stem cells: embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells, adult stem cells tweaked to behave like embryonic stem cells, and stem cells found in the amniotic fluid and the umbilical cord of babies.

The controversy around stem cell research largely lies in the use of embryonic stem cells. These are taken from human embryos in their early stages of development. Opponents have likened this to abortion, although others disagree with this stance.

Embryonic stem cells used in research come from donations from IVF clinics, where an egg is fertilized with a sperm but not implanted into a patient because it is not needed. Embryonic stem cells are preferred over adult stem cells, as it may not be possible to specialize the latter and they are more likely to have abnormalities. But research suggests that it may be possible to turn adult stem cells into a wider range of specialized cells than previously thought, which may make them more useful.

Why was Proposition 14 initiated?

In 2001, the Bush administration banned federal funding for stem cell research. This lead real estate developer Robert N. Klein II to initiate and help fund Proposition 71 in California. The aim was to enshrine the right to carry out stem cell research in the state's constitution, and establish CIRM. Klein was motivated by his son's experience with Type 1 diabetes, and his mother's Alzheimer's diagnosis. In 2004, Californians voted in favor of the proposition.

The institute has performed 64 clinical trials, and published over 3,000 scientific articles on the subject. But 16 years after Proposition 71 passed, CIRM started to run out of funds, and stopped accepting applications for new projects last year. This prompted the Californians for Stem Cell Research, Treatments and Cures political action committee (PAC) to lead the campaign for Proposition 14. Klein was among its supporters, as well as California governor Gavin Newsom, LA mayor Eric Garcetti, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation established by the Back to the Future actor and Parkison's disease patient who is its namesake.

On November 1, the foundation urged people via Twitter to vote in favor of Prop 14 to fund research on neurological disease. "Without this proposition vital research may come to a halt, delaying new treatments for people with," it said.

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A stock image shows a scientists working in a lab. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has researched stem cell therapies for 16 years. Getty