San Francisco Chronicle September 30, 2004
The Chronicle Recommends Time to advance stem-cell research
CALIFORNIA IS poised to play a pivotal, if rebellious, role in medical and scientific research. Proposition 71, a bold initiative brimming with potential, would make the Golden State the unquestioned leader in the field of stem cell research. The initiative would provide money to allow many of this state's brightest scientists to explore treatments and cures for some of the world's most disabling diseases.
Yet the unquestioned promise of the $3 billion state ballot measure has been clouded by controversy in part because of its sheer size and scope. Critics say that the proposal is too costly for a state staggering under a mountain of debt and tiptoes around ethical issues involved in a relatively new area of biomedical research.
But the potential breakthroughs in treatments and possible cures for more than 70 diseases including cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis and even spinal cord injuries, are, in our view, worth the risk. Proposition 71 offers a chance for California to be a global center for stem-cell research, an opportunity that could result in a significant windfall from research jobs and tax revenues, not to mention considerable savings on health care. It's a big leap of faith, but a justified one for a state that has often led the nation in technological and medical exploration.
While the amount of the benefit is unknown at this point, the cost is not. The initiative would authorize the state to issue $3 billion in bonds to pay for new stem cell programs and research facilities, approximately $300 million a year for the next decade. The bonds would be repaid over 30 years at a 5.25 percent interest rate, bringing the total cost of the measure to nearly $6 billion. Opponents of Proposition 71 note that it's a considerable chunk of change for a state to pay, particularly one that just borrowed $15 billion to balance its budget. And borrowing money to fund research grants, instead of capital projects such as parks, highways and hospitals is fairly unprecedented for a state filled with so many dire needs.
Critics say the initiative offers the risk of providing a publicly financed gift to pharmaceutical companies and suggest that oversight of the proposed stem-cell programs is too closely aligned with advocates of the bio- medical research industry. And some religious groups cite moral objections to destroying early-stage embryos while extracting their stem cells -- even though the vast majority of the embryos would be discarded anyway.
But the frustrated proponents behind Proposition 71 note that research on the amazing regenerative stem cells has been sharply curtailed under the Bush administration, which put strict limits on the lines of human embryonic stem cells that could be studied and then capped federal funding for the research at $25 million. Such political restrictions on arguably one of the most promising areas of biomedical research are foolhardy; the cost in human suffering too great.
As a society, we have a moral and ethical obligation to pursue this potentially life-enhancing science with a sense of mission that is now lacking in the nation's capital. California has long been a leader in biotechnology and other burgeoning research industries. Proposition 71 gives the state an opportunity to fund another crucial area of medical technology. This state is big enough to support such an adventurous and exciting quest -- and it should -- since it offers not just promise, but hope.
On Nov. 2, we urge a yes vote on Proposition 71.