Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

As reported in Forbes, many pro-stem cell billionaires are picking up the cause and heavily donating to research projects to develop stem cell therapies. Following the Bush Administration’s further constraints of funding, and limited federal stem cell lines (which now contain a woeful number of defects), universities and foundations were forced to set up off-site labs in Singapore or Europe—and to raise private funds. Enter wealthy, scientifically-concerned people–many of whom are within the Republican party.

Eli Broad sees it as a great way to save lives–and he is tapping his $6 billion fortune to help. Sidestepping the ban on federal funding of most stem-cell experiments imposed by President Bush five years ago, Broad, the founder of builder KB Home, gave $25 million in February to the University of Southern California to erect a stem-cell building.

Other major donors include Michael Bloomberg (billionaire mayor of NYC pledged $100 million), Bill and Melinda Gates, Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar, Ray Dolby (of Dolby Sound Systems), Oracle founder Larry Ellison, and countless celebs such as Michael J. Fox.

Futhermore, the fear of privately-funded stem cell labs interacting with NIH cohorts has killed the ability to collaborate:

(Dr.) Melton landed enough money to start a separate lab, and he works on turning his stem line into insulin-producing cells to study where they go wrong in diabetics. But half his budget goes to redundant lab gear and overhead he wouldn’t need if it weren’t for the NIH rules against stem-cell funding. His stem-cell colleague at Harvard, M. Wiliam Lensch, uses only private funding from Harvard but worries about getting in trouble if he merely talks to NIH-funded peers in his lab.

At Memorial Sloan-Kettering, stem-cell biologist Lorenz Studer has received money from Project A.L.S. and the Starr and Michael J. Fox charities (Fox, the actor, has Parkinson’s). He cautiously puts yellow stickers on every piece of equipment used for banned experiments to inoculate his operation from any NIH contact. His grad students put stickers on wastebaskets to mock the NIH.

A few billionaires’ donations:

Michael Bloomberg: A reported $100 million gift to alma mater Johns Hopkins included cash for its stem-cell institute. At a speech there, he lambasted the feds for not funding the research.

Eli Broad: Gave $25 million to build a stem-cell building at USC. More gifts could be coming. A big supporter of the California proposition that could give researchers $3 billion.

Ray Dolby: With wife Dagmar gave $16 million to UCSF to help build a new stem-cell research center. Has remained quiet about his gift.

Larry Ellison: Through his medical foundation, has given almost $4 million to various embryonic stem-cell projects.

Bill Gates: He and wife Melinda donated $400,000 to the campaign to support California embryonic stem-cell proposition. Their foundation has given a $1.9 million grant to AIDS research at China’s Peking University that uses human embryonic stem cells.

Pierre Omidyar: He and wife Pamela donated a combined $1 million to the campaign supporting the California ballot proposition.

(Hat tip to Bob Abu for the story.)


  1. #1 Robert P
    August 22, 2006

    We should start a fund. Seriously, like an ActBlue page to fund those who are doing private research on stem cells. I’ll bet we could raise a couple million dollars.

  2. #2 bob koepp
    August 22, 2006

    As I’ve stated elsewhere and elsewhen, I think embryonic stem cell research should be pursued vigorously, but not with public funding. I’m very pleased that private sources of funding are stepping up.

    But what’s with the fretting about maintaining clear lines between expenditures of public and private monies? This is not a new hardship being imposed on researchers. I don’t know of a single lab that doesn’t already use fund accounting, which is designed precisely to track the flow of restricted funds. So why should the situation be any different in the case of ESCR?

  3. #3 Joe
    August 22, 2006

    There is a prize setup already for longevity research. It is the Methuselah Mouse Prize @ It is to make a mouse that lives longer than any other mouse before it has. I encurage everyone to check it out. There are some smart people working on the fundimentals of aging they just need support.

  4. #4 Nick Anthis
    August 22, 2006

    It’s great to see so many donors stepping up to the plate, but it’s unfortunate that we have to rely on private donors and < href="">individual states, when this should clearly be a federal project. Regardless, as you point out, the fact that federal money can’t even touch embryonic stem cells with a ten-foot pole really slows down quite a few labs.

  5. #5 Shelley Batts
    August 22, 2006

    Robert, the only problem is, that if I raised a million dollars I wouldn’t want to give it away! 🙂

    Nothing wrong with tracking funds, as many labs must do with the use of public funds, or with controlled substances like ketamine. However when it interferes with the basic goal of a lab (to do research, without stressing over serious consequences of a slipup) we have a problem. Even my NRSA grant contained a lot of hoops to jump through if you even mentioned interest in using one of the federal lines–it was certainly enough for me to write off that possibility. And, as mentioned previously by Nick and myself (among many others), the majority (two-thirds) of the American public supports the federal funding of ESC research. A clearer unification hasn’t existed since GWB’s disapproval rating. 😛

  6. #6 Kenneth d'Frequencia
    August 22, 2006

    If J19 = # of million/billion/hot-aires funding stem-cell research and J6 = # of million/billion/hot-aires funding stem-cell research who also have investments that would increase in value if the research pays off, then I’d bet that c*J19 = c*J6, where c is the speed of light. Just a hunch derived from my familiarity with humans.

    There’s certainly nothing wrong with making lots of money, but it’s naive to laud a group of fat cats as seers or saints for doing what they do.

    P.S. As a recipient of ~$50M in federal grants over the years, I echo the comments of “bob koepp” on fund accounting and greet with disdain the news about the biologist who allows his students to mock an agency for following the policies of a democratically elected government.

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