Group seeks state funds for stem cell research
By Terri Somers, STAFF WRITER
A group of patient advocates and prominent researchers is gathering signatures to get a proposition on the November ballot that could make $3 billion available to California scientists for human embryonic stem cell research.
The coalition, Californians for Stem Cell Research and Cures, aims to counter a 2001 order by President Bush that limited federal funding of the work, which many religious and anti-abortion groups oppose.
Embryonic stem cells have the potential to develop into any cell in the body, leading scientists to believe they hold the promise of treatments for a bevy of illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig's disease.
The $3 billion bond proposition would make available $295 million a year to California schools, institutes and companies over 10 years. By comparison, the federal government awarded $10.7 million for stem cell research in 2002.
"California will be the center of stem cell research for the world," said real estate developer and campaign organizer Robert Klein, who has contributed $500,000 to the effort.
Klein and Tom Coleman, another founder of the group, learned about stem cell research because of their children, who for years have dealt with juvenile diabetes.
"In the process of dealing with my daughter's illness I became acutely aware of many other diseases that could be enormously impacted by the research still in its infantile state," Coleman said.
The campaign's organizers said they've raised $2.5 million toward a goal of $20 million. They need to gather 600,000 voter signatures by April 16 to qualify for the November ballot.
The measure has the support of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation and the American Diabetes Association. Researchers who support the proposal include Nobel laureates Paul Berg of Stanford University, University of California San Francisco Chancellor J. Michael Bishop and California Institute of Technology head David Baltimore.
While the proposal allows for the replication of stem cells, it specifically prohibits cell cloning aimed at reproducing human life.
In September, the California Legislature passed new laws establishing a registry of embryos donated for research and directing the Department of Health Services to establish guidelines for scientists. The largely symbolic legislation sought to established California as a national hub for such research.
But many religious and anti-abortion groups oppose the science.
"The technology is extremely questionable morally and practically," said Wesley J. Smith, a fellow at the conservative think tank Discovery Institute in Seattle. "Treating human life, however nascent, as a product is incredibly inhumane."
What's more, California is grappling with a large budget deficit, and any measures that put the state deeper in debt may face considerable opposition.
Coleman, a Republican and Roman Catholic, said he is very familiar with the moral issues with which many opponents of stem cell research grapple.
"I'm personally satisfied, after talking to scientists, that this does not give rise to the moral issues many people are concerned with, and it absolutely is not cloning," said Coleman, who has contributed $650,000 to the initiative.
Those who support the proposal also say it protects the state budget, because the initiative is designed so that the state would share in royalties that result from the research.
A study paid for by the initiative's supporters found that those royalties could generate revenue for decades to come.
Interest and principal payments on the bonds would be postponed for the first five years. During those years construction and new jobs the research would generate are expected to create about $70 million in new tax revenue, according to the analysis by a Stanford University professor and a private consultant.
Eventually, the initiative could lead to disease cures that would significantly reduce the state's health care costs, which are now more than $112 billion annually, the analysis said.
The proposition flies in the the face of a 2001 presidential order setting limits on stem cell research, as well as attempts to ban the research by Congress and an increasing number of states.
President Bush ordered the National Institutes of Health not to fund any research on stem cells that were harvested from embryos after Aug. 9, 2001. The NIH identified 78 cell lines that met all the restrictions, and 12 of those lines are now available for study.
But many stem cell scientists say the policy severely restricts research. For instance, none of the cell lines available could be used to treat patients because they were grown using mouse cells and may contain rodent viruses.
"The limits government has placed on scientists and their research are like if Congress said to President Bush, 'You can fight the war in Iraq, but you can only use World War II weapons,' " said Dr. Evan Snyder, a stem cell researcher at the La Jolla-based Burnham Institute.
"This (initiative) is exactly what this country needs because some of the greatest advances that need to be made in stem cell biology are being hampered by restrictions created by Bush edict," Snyder said.
It makes sense that the campaign should happen in California, which has the biggest base of biomedical research, he said.
Without it, Snyder said, the nation risks becoming a second-rate research center to places such as England, Australia, Sweden and Western Europe, which have identified stem cell research as an important area to pursue.
"That means that for the most promising therapies we will need to go to other countries to get them," he said. "They'll only be available by leaving this country and at whatever cost that entails."
Since Bush announced his policy, some scientists interested in the field have moved abroad so that they can pursue their science more freely, said Larry Goldstein, a stem cell researcher at UCSD.