The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is about to enter a crucial stage in stem cell research: going to clinical trials. The most promising experiments could cure diabetes, HIV, sickle-cell anemia and blindness in the elderly.
"You don't really get to find out whether the potential of the treatment is really going to be effective until you start to treat the patients," said Alan Trounson, president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
CIRM's board is discussing how much to allocate for that trial phase. Through voter-approved bonds under Proposition 71 (The California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act), it has already given out or spent half of the $3 billion, but despite the medical promise, there's little to show for it beyond basic research and several high-tech laboratories.
But the agency says the breakthroughs will come over the next few years, way ahead of the rest of the world.
"This would all be happening in California, all driven by this Proposition 71 money," said Trounson.
The bond money is expected to last only several more years. One option is to ask voters to approve more bonds, something taxpayer groups oppose.
"When people think about bond financing, they think about a bridge, a school, a canal," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. "But stem cell research is just kind of out there."
Rancher Diana Souza says it would be a shame to stop public funding of stem cell research. Through trials at UC Davis Medical Center not financed by Prop. 71 money, she says stem cells helped restore full use of her severely fractured arm.
"I hope they can continue doing this because it is a miracle. It does work. And I have a good arm to prove it," said Souza.
CIRM has already submitted a transition plan to Governor Jerry Brown and lawmakers that assumes there will no longer be taxpayer support after the bond money runs out. The agency is also thinking about becoming a non-profit organization.