Biotechs support stem cell ballot initiative
State-funded program would total $3 billion
By Teri Somers, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
The San Diego biotechnology industry group Biocom announced it is endorsing
a bond initiative on the Nov. 2 ballot that would make $3 billion available
for embryonic stem cell research in California.
Proposition 71, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative, would provide $295 million a year over 10 years for embryonic stem cell research. If approved, the state's funding would dwarf the federal government's investment in stem-cell research, which totaled $10.7 million in 2002.
Research at places such as UCSD and the Burnham Institute in San Diego that would be funded with the proposed initiative could eventually be a boon for California biotechnology companies that could turn the science into products.
"We did the right thing," Biocom President Joe Panetta said yesterday of the group's decision. "The academic research we fund today is the cornerstone of the life-saving therapies we depend on tomorrow."
Many scientists believe the young and controversial field of stem cell research could lead to revolutionary treatments for some of the world's most devastating diseases.
Embryonic stem cells are the powerful building blocks of early development that are the source of every other cell in the body. Scientists believe that some day they could be used to replace cells damaged by diseases including diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
Many people oppose research with such cells, arguing that the clusters of cells from which they are harvested are embryos and should be protected as individual lives. Some fear that the science might lead to human cloning and the harvesting of body parts from babies conceived for that purpose.
If approved by voters, the California initiative would circumvent a funding gap created two years ago when President Bush, citing moral concerns, limited the number of stem cell lines on which scientists could conduct federally funded research.
"It's the first time ever that our government has taken a position of not funding a certain area of basic research, without it being clear that there is any potential detrimental effect there," Panetta said. "Of course you can argue the ethics, moral concerns of it. But there's no indication that there is going to be cloning of human beings or anything like that."
Biocom joins a growing list of business organizations, Nobel laureates, patient advocates and deep-pocketed Hollywood types that have endorsed the measure.
"Scientifically we all agree that this is an important area of research that needs to be explored and that California is a place uniquely suited to it because of the research institutions and biotechnology industry located here," said Biocom Board Member Steve Mento, who is chief executive of Idun Pharmaceuticals.
Research institutions such as UCSD, Scripps and the Burnham Institute and the state's biotechnology companies obviously have their own interests for wanting to be involved in the science, Mento said. But they also have the brainpower and experience that could be instrumental in moving the technology forward in ways that no one has imagined, he said.
Biocom's support was not won before a lengthy discussion of the funding mechanisms behind the bond initiative and how the research grants it proposes to fund would be administered. Supporters and authors of the initiative, including Larry Goldstein, a stem cell researcher at UCSD, gave detailed presentations to three Biocom committees and its board over the past several months.
That doesn't necessarily mean the group was dragging its feet on supporting the measure, said Fionna Hutton, a spokesperson for the group behind the initiative. Similar presentations have been requested by most of the other groups that have endorsed the measure, she said.
"We came to the conclusion that we are missing the boat relative to research conducted in other parts of the world," Panetta said. He pointed to the United Kingdom, where the science has been embraced with little controversy, allowing scientists to take the lead on this emerging science.
Some critics of the science, and some who oppose to cash-strapped California's taking on billions more dollars in debt, ask why the business community can't find a way to fund this science without taxpayers help.
Panetta said the reason is that it is next to impossible to raise money for basic research. It's hard enough for companies with drugs in early stage clinical trials, which is well past basic research, to get venture capitalists to invest money, he said.
Mento said the group's financial discussion mainly focused on value: Whatever the investment dollar amount is, what is the potential for return on that?
"Whatever number is placed on the value of the investment now, based on past experience, will likely be an underestimate of the value people perceive this science will have worldwide," Mento said.
He likened trying to value still-nascent stem cell research to attempts 25 years ago at placing a dollar value on recombinant DNA research, or the science of combining DNA from two different sources.
"People clearly saw the value of recombinant DNA research in new therapeutics and drugs for people," he said. "But the overall value of the technology has been so much broader in its usefulness across many diverse areas."