Prop. 71 opens tap for stem-cell studiesBy Terri Somers
Greg Wasson, with his wife, Ann, after he spoke last month in San Diego, has been trying to rally support for a $3 billion bond initiative for stem cell research.
Greg Wasson isn't the typical lobbyist for a California bond initiative.
For the past nine years, Parkinson's disease has crept through Wasson's brain, killing off neurotransmitter cells that signal his muscles to move. Walking, speaking, even brushing his teeth and turning over in bed have grown increasingly difficult for the 52-year-old former lawyer.
Nevertheless, Wasson has been traveling around the state, trying to rally support for Proposition 71, a state bond initiative that would make $3 billion available for stem-cell research over the next 10 years. That's about $295 million a year for a controversial area of science that is still in its infancy but eventually could yield untold medical miracles, such as the ability to replace brain cells destroyed by Parkinson's.
The initiative came about after President Bush in 2001 restricted federal funding for certain types of stem-cell work. If the measure passes, the state's funding would dwarf the federal government's investment in stem-cell research, which totaled $25 million last year. And it could put California in the vanguard of a hot new field of science.
Stem cells have the ability to morph into a variety of cells with specific purposes, such as nerve cells in the brain, islet cells in the pancreas and all the cells in the heart. Scientists are learning to harvest stem cells from umbilical cord blood, the brain and even fat.
Much of the controversy revolves around the practice of using stem cells from discarded embryos. Embryonic stem cells are a group of 100 to 200 cells formed within days after fertilization. The proposition would give priority to research with these cells, which are the powerful building blocks of the human body, multiplying and developing into organs, blood and bone.
Scientists think they could someday be used to replace cells damaged by diseases such as Alzheimer's and diabetes.
"The idea that we may be able to take any disease or condition which results from the death of cells and prevent it or repair it by transplanting stem cells into the tissue you want is an outstanding, breathtaking development," said Wasson, a California coordinator for the Parkinson's Action Network.
But embryonic stem-cell research has many opponents who say the cluster of cells from which they are harvested is a human life that should be protected. Some fear that the science might lead to human cloning and the harvesting of body parts from babies conceived for that purpose.
Those moral concerns prompted Bush to sign the 2001 order that provides federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research only if scientists use stem cells originally taken from 20 embryos before Aug. 9, 2001. Researchers using other "lines" of stem cells must pursue other funding.
That includes scientists who hope to use cells donated by people who have used in-vitro fertilization clinics and have embryos in storage that they do not plan to use in attempting to have children. There are 400,000 such embryos in storage in the United States.
Stem-cell scientists have likened Bush's restrictions to sending soldiers to Iraq equipped with World War II-era weapons. As U.S. scientists search for private funding, those in Japan, Korea and several European countries have moved ahead without much controversy.
A Field Poll conducted in early August showed that Californians were split nearly evenly on Proposition 71. According to the poll, 45 percent of the 534 likely voters said they supported the measure and 42 percent said they were opposed. Thirteen percent were undecided. A more recent poll, however, showed the initiative gaining more public support.
Backers of Proposition 71 have donated more than $15 million to promote it, while the organized opposition has raised less than $150,000.
Wasson could be the poster boy for the biggest special interest group behind Proposition 71: thousands of Californians with conditions that scientists think may someday be treated or cured through stem-cell therapies.
Robert Klein II, a Palo Alto-based affordable-housing developer who was the key figure in organizing Proposition 71, has donated more than $2 million to the campaign. Klein's mother has Alzheimer's. His son has type 1, or juvenile, diabetes.
Big-name, big-check supporters include producer Jerry Zucker, whose daughter has type 1 diabetes; Microsoft founder Bill Gates; eBay founder Pierre Omidyar; and William Bowes Jr., the founder of biotech giant Amgen.
The initiative also has won the endorsements of 50 patient advocacy groups; 20 Nobel laureates; and the California, Los Angeles and San Diego chambers of commerce.
Weeks before former President Reagan died June 5, former first lady Nancy Reagan added her voice to the chorus urging Bush to remove his limits on stem-cell research.
On the campaign trail, Bush has proposed spending $25 billion a year on such study and says he won't budge on his restrictions. His Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, has said that if elected he would lift the restrictions and has proposed spending $100 million on research.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he supports stem-cell research but has not said whether he will endorse Proposition 71.
Opponents of the California measure say the real special interest behind Proposition 71 is the venture capitalist industry, which is not willing to invest in the nascent science. Venture capitalists, they argue, want taxpayers to risk billions of dollars and will wait, poised to jump in, commercialize products and make a bundle.
Wayne Johnson, a consultant for the opposition group No On Prop. 71, said it should come as no surprise that the campaign has raised only $150,000.
"We don't have pieces of $3 billion to promise people if our side wins," he said.
To bankroll the initiative, the state would be authorized to sell up to $3 billion in general obligation bonds. Repayment of those bonds would cost taxpayers about $6 billion, or about $200 million annually over 30 years with an estimated interest rate of 5.25 percent, according to a legislative analyst's report. However, it is impossible to predict exactly how much the measure would ultimately cost because interest rates fluctuate, analysts said.
Opponents of the measure say the cost is too high - especially given the state's fiscal problems.
"That's $6 billion that is being robbed out of future general fund budgets," Johnson said. "It's money that is not going to schools, health care, fixing roads, law enforcement or AIDS patients."
As a group, opponents of Proposition 71 have avoided raising the moral concerns about stem-cell research that often dominate the debate on the national stage. Opposition was a strategic decision made by "an eclectic group of Republicans and Democrats, people who are pro-life and pro-choice," because everyone shares the financial concerns, Johnson said.
But ties to religious groups that oppose abortion are evident. Of the less than $150,000 the opposition reported receiving, $50,000 is from the Roman Catholic Church. Another $50,000 came from Howard F. Ahmanson, a savings and loan heir who has donated to numerous anti-abortion Christian organizations.
Certain components of the measure were written in anticipation of opposition.
For instance, Proposition 71 would amend the state constitution, making all stem-cell research a legal right. Changing an amendment would take approval from 70 percent of the state Legislature and the signature of the governor.
And the proposition bars any of the $3 billion from supporting projects that would lead to reproductive human cloning.
Supporters of Proposition 71 view the $3 billion price tag as an investment in health care that could save the taxpayers billions in the future.
The authors of Proposition 71 say they decided on $3 billion after considering what it would take to have an impact on the science, said Larry Goldstein, a stem cell researcher at the University of California San Diego.
"You've got to remember that this research we're doing isn't into just one or two diseases," Goldstein said. "This research will likely change our approach to fighting disease and developing drugs. In the end, we decided to compromise and keep it reasonable - in the scope of what the state of California could afford.
"It's probably not enough," he said.
State Controller Steve Westly, state Treasurer Phil Angelides and former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, all of whom have endorsed the measure, say it has the potential to reduce health care costs and generate new tax revenue.
Economists who analyzed the initiative for its backers argue that Proposition 71 would at least pay for itself over the life of the bonds.
The economists from Stanford University and the Analysis Group predict that the initiative would generate at least $6.4 billion. They say it would generate $2.2 billion to $4.4 billion if it could expand the state's biotechnology industry by about 5 percent, with new jobs, construction of new buildings and increased revenue.
If the research could reduce health care spending by 1 percent to 2 percent, the direct savings in health care costs to the state government would be $3.4 billion to $6.9 billion, on just the care and treatment of patients suffering from six of the medical conditions scientists think could benefit from new stem-cell therapies, the analysts said.
They also say direct sales and income tax revenue would be at least $240 million and that the state could generate $537 million in royalty payments over 35 years.
More than one opposition group questions the veracity of those projections.
In 2003, the University of California's entire portfolio of 900 patented inventions generated $67 million in royalties, said the Center for Genetics and Society, which describes itself as a liberal California think tank.
And there is no guarantee that life-saving, cost-saving therapies will be found. Even if they are, scientists say it is at least 15 years away.
That's one reason Proposition 71 opponents place no faith in the economists' analysis.
Johnson said the analysis is based on the "ludicrous assumption" that health care costs will go down, when there is no certainty a beneficial therapy or cure will be produced. He points out that embryonic stem-cell research hasn't produced a single cure to date.
Goldstein and Dr. Evan Snyder, a stem-cell researcher at the Burnham Institute in San Diego, admit that their field is still in its most primitive stages.
"Is there a risk in this?" asks Goldstein. "Sure there's a risk, but the risk of not doing this outweighs it."
Stem-cell researchers remain confident and enthusiastic because of the strides that have already been made.
For instance, at a legislative hearing held on Proposition 71 in San Diego this month, a University of California Irvine professor, Hans Keirstead, showed video of a mouse whose hind quarters had been paralyzed. After embryonic stem cell therapy, the mouse regained mobility in its hind quarters.
"Maybe every 100 years there is one major milestone, like the invention of penicillin," Keirstead said. "This is such a thing."