11/20/2014 06:51 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

The Difference Stem Cell Research Can Make

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We live in an age of medical discovery, one that holds out the promise of new ways of treating previously deadly diseases, saving lives and improving the quality of life for millions of others.

How do I know? Just this week scientists at UCLA announced that in the last five years they have used stem cells to cure 18 cases of "bubble baby" disease -- a once-deadly problem occurring when children are born without a functioning immune system. For the children and their families, the news is truly exciting. Adding to that excitement is the news that the doctor behind this cure is now focusing this same approach on a larger affliction, sickle cell disease -- a painful and potentially fatal condition that predominantly affects African Americans.

One of the driving forces behind these medical discoveries is the state's stem cell agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The agency was created by the people of California 10 years ago this month, when they overwhelmingly approved the passage of Proposition 71. In the 10 years since then CIRM has helped make California a global leader in the field of stem cell research and helped to move 10 of the most promising therapies out of the laboratory and into clinical trials where they are funding testing them in people. Those 10 trials include therapies for cancer, leukemia, diabetes, heart disease, blindness, HIV/AIDS and spinal cord injuries.

As Californians we should be proud of these achievements. Without our support they would not have been possible. At a time when the federal government is cutting funding for scientific research -- cuts that are having a devastating impact not just on our ability to develop new treatments but also on our ability to train the next generation of scientists -- the people of California are demonstrating their support for science, and that public support is essential if we hope to tackle the deadliest diseases facing us today.

This is a personal issue for me. I am a child of Alzheimer's. It took the life of my father. He was driven, intelligent, sharp and an American hero who created the Peace Corps and headed America's first War on Poverty, but by the time he died he didn't know my name or who I was. One of the reasons I supported Proposition 71 was that I hoped stem cells might offer a treatment, even a cure, for people like my father. I still hold out the hope that one day, through the combined efforts of stem cell discoveries and federal funding for the National Alzheimer's Project Act (NAPA), we will have a cure for Alzheimer's, just as we now have a cure for "bubble baby" disease.

And Alzheimer's is only one example. Heart disease and stroke, diabetes and cancer; all take a heavy toll, not just in terms of lives lost but also in terms of lives affected. Many spouses or family members of someone with a debilitating disease are forced to quit jobs to stay home and care for their relatives -- or go through the heart-wrenching process of sending the afflicted away to a facility. For so many, the financial, emotional and spiritual costs are too much to bear.

Current therapies offer help in some of these cases, but all too often they amount to little more than patching up the problem, treating the symptoms not the cause. Stem cell research potentially offers an entirely new way of treating disease -- one that replaces damaged cells in the brain with healthy new ones; that regenerates organs and tissues weakened by disease or aging; that attempts to turn back the clock and restore vision to someone going blind.

CIRM has helped turn California into a powerhouse for stem cell research, attracting some of the best scientists in the world, and making it a breeding ground for new biotech companies, new ideas and, most important of all, new treatments.

I know that if we continue to make this kind of commitment to brilliant scientists, like the ones I have met in laboratories around California, that we will find new treatments, new ways to slow down deadly diseases, perhaps even prevent or reverse them.

The news about 'bubble baby' disease is just the start. I am convinced that stem cell research means we Baby Boomers will be the last generation to have to watch our parents die of Alzheimer's or watch our children die prematurely of sickle cell disease. Proposition 71 set this research in motion. Now we have to make sure this research keeps moving forward.