Scientists in region want to take lead on stem cell
By Terri Somers and Bruce Leiberman
In labs from San Diego to Pasadena, scientists are trying to make Southern California the world center for stem-cell research – a young and controversial field that could lead to revolutionary treatments for some of the world's most devastating diseases.
A group of Southern California biologists is building a consortium to advance the research as state legislators express support. Simultaneously, patient advocates and scientists are pushing a $3 billion ballot initiative that could fund research for the next decade.
Revealing the secrets of human embryonic stem cells, the powerful building blocks of early development that are the source of every other cell in the body, could someday allow doctors to replace diseased and injured tissue assaulted by Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, heart disease and many other illnesses.
But the fervor over stem cells is fueled by more than altruism. The scientific discoveries could be a financial boon for local biotech companies and entrepreneurs.
California leads the nation in its aggressive support of the field. As a whole, however, the United States lags behind several countries that have embraced stem-cell research.
In an effort to move the state forward, the Legislature created laws last year to establish a registry of embryos donated for research and to direct the state Department of Health Services to create ethical guidelines.
Also, in 2002, then-Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation declaring that California favored all types of stem-cell study, despite federal restrictions on research into human embryonic stem cells, which requires the destruction of embryos.
A proposed state bond measure on the November ballot could propel California even further, proponents say, by raising $295 million per year for 10 years for the research. That would dwarf the federal government's investment in stem-cell research, which totaled $10.7 million in 2002.
If the bond measure passes and the consortium of Southern California scientists continues to jell, "there is no doubt in my mind that two years from now, this will be the absolute epicenter of stem-cell research in the world," said Dr. Evan Snyder, who heads The Burnham Institute's stem-cell program in La Jolla and is a prime architect of the consortium.
Outside the laboratory, the field remains the subject of a divisive national debate.
Many people oppose the work, arguing that human embryos should be protected as individual lives. Critics say using them to extract stem cells, a process that destroys the embryo, is tantamount to taking a life. Some fear that the science might lead to human cloning and the harvesting of body parts from babies conceived for that purpose.
Some Catholic bishops have declared embryonic stem-cell research a sin, and at least one has said Catholic politicians would be denied taking Communion if they support it.
In deference to such views, President Bush signed an order in 2001 that cut off federal funding for any stem-cell research that uses embryos collected after Aug. 9, 2001. Researchers using stem-cell lines outside the guidelines would have to pursue other avenues of funding.
California is among a growing number of states and institutions trying to encourage the research despite federal restrictions.
In New Jersey, which is building a new stem-cell institute with $50 million in state and private funds, legislators passed a law that supports using new embryos to generate stem cells.
Earlier this year, Harvard University opened a stem-cell institute using private donations. In March, a private donor gave the University of Texas $25 million to help boost its stem-cell research program.
Support also appears to be building in the nation's capital.
Former first lady Nancy Reagan added her voice to the chorus urging Bush to remove his limits on stem-cell research weeks before her husband, former President Reagan, died of Alzheimer's disease, which scientists believe may someday be treated with stem-cell-derived therapy.
In April, 206 members of the House wrote to Bush, urging him to loosen the 2001 restrictions, thus making more embryos available for research. Last month, 42 Democrats, the lone independent and 15 Republicans from the Senate sent a similar letter to the president.
The legislators, including several who oppose abortion, want researchers to have access to unused embryos from a pool of about 400,000 stored in freezers at in-vitro fertilization clinics across the nation. These days-old embryos, which contain just a few hundred cells, are the stem-cell reservoirs that scientists value so highly. If not used for science, they would be discarded.
Stem cells also have emerged as an issue in this year's presidential campaign, with Democratic candidate John Kerry saying the restrictions should be lifted.
The White House recently indicated it would not budge on the issue.
At the international Biotechnology Industry Organization convention last month in San Francisco, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Bush's limits allow for ample scientific research.
While the United States continues to debate the ethical issues surrounding stem-cell research, other nations are moving ahead. Sweden, Australia, South Korea and several European countries have embraced the science with little controversy, allowing scientists to work unfettered.
U.S. researchers say they fear a drain of talent if young scientists move abroad to pursue their work – a potential development that stem-cell initiatives in California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Texas and elsewhere are partly designed to prevent.
"Our plan is to recruit the best and brightest minds to California by making it a well-funded center of the world for stem-cell research," said Larry Goldstein, a stem-cell researcher at UCSD who helped write the bond initiative that will be put before voters in the fall.
The statewide bond measure is intended to offer researchers seed money they can't get from the federal government because of the 2001 order.
The National Institutes of Health, which has an annual budget of nearly $28 billion, is the nation's primary supporter of basic biomedical research. Although the agency funds several stem-cell research programs, Bush's restriction prohibits any NIH grants for work requiring the destruction of new embryos.
Scientists say that without federal support for new human embryonic stem-cell study, there is little government money available to drive research to the point at which venture capitalists typically step in with funding to bring new technologies to market.
The bond initiative, providing money to California schools, institutes and companies, would fill that void, Goldstein said.
"If the measure wins voter approval, it will change everything," he said.
California is home to half of the country's biotechnology companies and research institutes. The initiative would give the research facilities the ability to expand with $300 million set aside for those that have matching funds to create a new dedicated stem-cell program, said Robert Klein, a Los Angeles real estate developer and co-founder of the group behind the bond initiative.
Such programs would guarantee research on a long-term basis, creating a stable base of high-value jobs for the economy, Klein said.
"California is the only state with the real capacity to run a substitute national research program for stem cells," he said. "The state's capacity is greater than the capacity of many nations."
Last month, the group backing the measure, Californians for Stem Cell Research and Cures, said it had gathered signatures from more than 1 million people – double what was needed to place it on the ballot. Supporters include scientists, patient advocates and 20 Nobel laureates.
Klein expects this support to continue growing because half the families in California and nationwide are affected by the top five of the 70 diseases scientists think could be treated with stem-cell therapy.
But the initiative has detractors that cross ethical and political lines of thought. Doctors, Patients and Taxpayers for Fiscal Responsibility, a newly formed coalition lobbying against the initiative, includes feminists who support abortion rights and Catholics who oppose them.
The initiative gives scientists money without adequate oversight, said Carol Hogan, communications director for the group. In a state already awash in red ink, Hogan said, "it's social injustice to spend $3 billion on this when a lot of uninsured children haven't had their basic immunizations and hospitals are closing all over."
The group avoids more divisive religious and moral arguments.
Researchers, meanwhile, are determined to move ahead with or without the state bond measure.
In San Diego County, the new consortium is intended to stimulate the field, both within federal funding limitations and by using private or state-raised money unencumbered by Bush's order.
The group, called the Southern California Stem Cell Consortium, has met monthly since last July to discuss the latest discoveries. It includes La Jolla scientists from Burnham, UCSD, the Salk Institute, Scripps Research Institute and a handful of biotech companies, as well as researchers from UCLA, USC, Caltech and other institutions to the north.
The group's goals include holding public forums, distributing new human embryonic stem-cell lines to scientists worldwide and building a database of the latest research to provide scientists a single place to find information.
The time is right to position San Diego as a regional leader in the field, said Fred Gage, a stem-cell researcher at the Salk Institute.
"What's important is to foster the research, get the scientists communicating with each other and then provide a strong environment so that young people . . . look at this field as someplace they would be willing to hang their careers on," Gage said.
Besides curing disease, stem-cell research could create billion-dollar business opportunities, local scientists and biotechnology executives say. Venture capitalists have donated more than $1.8 million to the campaign supporting the bond initiative, much of it from individuals involved in early biotech companies.
In the short term, the field could bring new customers for biotechnology companies such as Carlsbad-based Invitrogen, which provides testing kits and other tools and services used in drug development.
"This represents an unbelievable frontier of disease research and ultimately therapies," Invitrogen Chief Executive Greg Lucier said. "We're huge believers in the technology."
In the long term, discoveries could create opportunities for new business and investment, just as they did in fueling the region's biotechnology boom 25 years ago, said Joe Panetta, chief executive of Biocom, a trade group for San Diego biotechnology companies.
Today only a limited number of companies are working with stem cells because it probably will be years before they are used widely in medicine, Panetta said. San Diego-based Cythera and Macropore are two of the few biotechnology companies already studying them.
"There are some applications already showing great benefit, but the kinds of things we are talking about, like tissue regeneration and the use of stem cells to produce identical matches for donor organ tissues, are still too far away to excite venture capital," Panetta said. "But the consortium could go a long way to put all the pieces together."
With a new public investment in research, the field eventually could fuel the creation of new companies and draw scientific talent to California, the Burnham Institute's Snyder said.
"There would almost be a sucking sound as it brings in researchers (and) business investors," he said.