Current Events Medical Studies Public Policy

California’s stem cell initiative a waste?

In November 2004, California passed Proposition 71 which allocated $3 billion over ten years to stem cell research. Many of my friends–especially those in the medical field–strongly supported the bill. While I support stem cell research, I do not approve of the referendum system by which this bill was enacted. Spending $3 billion on unproven research is excessive, and shows how referenda written by small interest groups will lead to extreme outcomes not advocated by the median voter.  The average voter may approve stem cell research but I doubt voters would agree to pay $100 per person just for stem cell research, when other programs such as vaccinations, Medicaid, etc. may warrant more money as well.

Today’s L. A. Times (“Faith in ‘Miracle Cures’ Is Fading in South Korea“) casts more doubt on whether the $3 billion of taxpayer money was well spent. South Korea’s claims of stem cells miraculously healing patients have been found be at best overblown and at worst false. Some comments from South Korean stem cell patients:

  • “I was like an animal they used for testing,” said one patient.
  • “They were telling us about one patient who was in a coma and then after the procedure she was climbing Mt. Halla,” said Choi Mi Ae, a 54-year-old liver patient, referring to the most famous peak on Cheju, an island off the southern coast. Choi said she was so convinced by claims of a cure that she almost removed her name from a waiting list for a liver transplant.  “If I had done that, I wouldn’t be alive today,” she said. “There was no effect from the procedure, nothing at all. I was lucky that six months later I was able to get a new liver.”
  • “The bottom line is making money,” said an American who sought treatment in South Korea. “I think it is too much to ask anybody to spend $100,000 or more for stem cell therapy that is still really a clinical trial.”
  • “They are selling desperate people a story that just one injection of stem cells will be like a magic pill to cure them,” said Lee Sang Ho, a biotechnology expert at Korea University in Seoul.

Do I think that stem cell research is futile?  Of course not.  The lessons to be taken away from this are:

  1. ‘Magic Bullet’ health care solutions are few and far between.
  2. The referenda system in California leads to excessive spending on niche programs.  If a stem cell bill went to the legislature, it probably would have passed but not for $3 billion.  Having a referenda, voters must choose between $3 billion and $0 for stem cell research.  I would guess most people have preferences for spending in between these two figures, but this is not an option.
  3. Stem cell research may still lead to cures for diseases; medical advances take time and unfortunately patients need to be…well…patient.