The latest frontier in stem cell debate; California ballot issue seeks funds for research center; foes cite budget woes and unproven effectiveness, but advocates say it could be key to cures
By Vincent J. Schodolski, Tribune national correspondentLOS ANGELES
As it has so often in the past, California will break ground this autumn when voters are asked to approve a state-funded, multibillion-dollar facility to conduct embryonic stem cell research.
As highlighted by Ron Reagan last week at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, many believe stem cell research holds the potential for dramatic breakthroughs against a plethora of diseases, from juvenile diabetes to Alzheimer's. Reagan is a son of former President Ronald Reagan, who died June 5 in California after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer's.
But experts say much of the high hopes for stem cell research are based merely on promise at this stage and question whether it is wise for a state bearing a crushing budget deficit to spend taxpayer dollars on such an endeavor.
The November initiative places the emphasis on embryonic stem cell research, which is controversial because it requires the destruction of human embryos. But research would be conducted on adult stem cells as well. Backers say this will be the first attempt to set up a state stem cell research facility through a referendum.
Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has indicated he favors such research but has not taken a position on the initiative, Proposition 71. Nancy Reagan, the former president's widow, and Ron Reagan have been outspoken advocates of stem cell research, but they have not said whether they support the measure and both declined interview requests.
Fiona Hutton, one of the backers of Proposition 71, said supporters easily gathered more than 1 million signatures to get it on the ballot and that the former president's death unleashed a torrent of support for the initiative.
The money for gathering the signatures came from groups supporting research into various diseases that could benefit from research on stem cells, which are believed capable of creating any type of human tissue.
Carrie Gordon Earll, a senior policy analyst on bioethics for the conservative advocacy group Focus on the Family, said the organization opposes the California initiative for a variety of reasons, including the use of embryonic stem cells and because it views the undertaking as fiscally irresponsible for a state with a huge budget deficit.
"Private investors are steering clear of this kind of research," she said. "In California they are asking voters to spend money to prop up a financially risky business.
"Saying you favor stem cell research is like saying you are for world peace," Gordon Earll said. "Everybody is for world peace. The question is what road are you willing to take to get there. We absolutely favor stem cell research, but we oppose the destruction of embryos to achieve that."
She said Focus on the Family believed too little attention was being given to adult stem cell research and many important breakthroughs were occurring in that field.
"The blind are seeing and the lame are walking because of adult
stem cells," she said.
On the other side of the debate is a more liberal organization called Catholics for a Free Choice.
"We totally approve of the use of early embryos in stem cell research," said Frances Kissling, the group's president. "We don't believe that stems cells are human beings.
"It is irresponsible not to do research on this," Kissling said.
Her organization recently surveyed 2,239 Roman Catholics nationwide and reportedly found that 72 percent favored research that used early embryo stem cells.
Dennis Rodgerson, chief executive of NeoStem, a privately owned stem cell bank in Ventura County, said Proposition 71 "is a good initiative" even though he said he thinks too much emphasis is being placed on embryonic stem cells. His company works only with adult stem cells and is a repository for adults to store their cells for possible future use.
"While embryonic stem cells are the ultimate stem cells because they have not been programmed, not a single embryonic cell has been used for therapy," said Rodgerson, a retired UCLA pathology professor. "The real therapy at the moment is all with adult stem cells."
`Not one person helped'
James Walter, a professor of bioethics at Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit school in Los Angeles, opposes the initiative because he said he thinks it will lead to cloning of cells for research and thus open the way to the cloning of human beings.
Also, he and others said the promise of embryonic stem cells had to be tempered by the realization that such cells can grow into anything--including cancerous cells.
"Not one person has been helped by this," he said of embryonic stem cell work. "Thousands have been helped by multipotent stem cells," Walter said, using the technical term for adult stem cells.
And, he said, all scientific research must be viewed against a society's
"Even if one believes that the status of a preimplant embryo is nil, one still needs to approach this with some moral pause," Walter said. "Unless we know what we are doing, this could cause harm to many people.
"I think this [proposition] is more about cloning than anything else," he said. "It is also about the commoditization of embryos. Do you really want to go down that road . . . of creating these things to destroy them? What will that mean about the future of fetal life?"
Roger Robins, a professor of history and political science at Marymount College in Rancho Palos Verdes, opposes the measure on fiscal grounds, saying it would be irresponsible for the state to spend an estimated $3 billion on what is seen as a risky line of research.
"California is a pro-choice state, but California is also a bankrupt
state," Robins said.
"What they [supporters of the proposition] are selling are potential benefits.
"So far there is no proof."