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California Stem Cell Project Energizes Other States to Act

Times Staff Writer

As California moves quickly toward setting up a $3-billion embryonic stem cell research agency, other states are scrambling to prevent their top researchers from being raided.

The lure is clear: $300 million a year for embryonic stem cell research in California for the next decade, more than 10 times the yearly federal funding available and free of the Bush administration’s tight restrictions on what research can be conducted with federal money.

“Everyone I talk to wants to move to California,” said Kevin Wilson, director of public policy for the American Society of Cell Biologists. Wilson, only half jokingly, suggested “staking out the airports” to get a preview of which top researchers outside the state are thinking of relocating.

A few states have announced or plan soon to announce new funding for stem cell research, and others are considering legislation that endorses the research, moves influenced at least in part by the California initiative.

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Embryonic stem cells can become cells of any type, so many scientists believe they have great promise for treating diseases. But the research requires destroying human embryos to obtain the stem cells. Opponents of the research believe the destruction of embryos makes it immoral, regardless of the potential for curing disease.

Under restrictions Bush imposed early in his first term, federal grants can be used only for work with a small selection of embryonic stem cells that existed before August 2001. Because of those limits, states have taken the lead in basic scientific research in the field, usurping the role traditionally played by the Washington-based National Institutes of Health.

Officials in the few states where such research thrives have paid close attention to policies elsewhere, particularly to California’s voter-approved Proposition 71.

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, for example, said in a telephone interview that he had tracked the Proposition 71 campaign with an eye toward its effect on his state. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison were the first to discover how to isolate and grow human embryonic stem cells. Doyle said he strongly supports the California effort and believes the more research done in the field, “the better it is for everyone.” Still, biotech companies clustered around Madison, the state capital and home of the university, make up one of his state’s fastest growing industries, and Doyle said he wanted to act quickly to protect it.

He announced a $750-million initiative devoted to stem cell research and biotechnology at state institutions last week.

“Wisconsin can’t match California dollar for dollar,” Doyle conceded at a news conference at which he announced the initiative, which will include a $375-million institute for stem cell and other biomedical research at the university. But, he insisted, his state can still compete.

“We have a lot of things that I know will be major attractions to researchers,” Doyle said in the interview. “That’s not to say many of them aren’t going to go to California, but we won’t run and hide from that.” Proposition 71 “galvanized and focused us,” he added. “I see it both as a challenge to Wisconsin and an opportunity.”

In New Jersey, where pharmaceuticals are one of the state’s largest industries, Richard J. Codey, sworn in Tuesday as acting governor to replace James McGreevey, who resigned, already has said he will expand stem cell research efforts, which include a $9.5-million investment in a new state institute. As New Jersey’s Senate president, Cody sponsored legislation making the state the second after California to endorse embryonic stem cell research.

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The efforts to create a hospitable research climate go beyond a policy debate, said Michelle Ruess, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology. “Biotech is a huge business,” she said. “It’s not an industry we’ll walk away from.”

And in Illinois, backers of embryonic stem cell research are pushing a law that would officially endorse embryonic stem cell research and set guidelines for it in the state, similar to the laws passed in California and New Jersey. After an emotional floor debate on Thursday, the bill fell two votes shy of passing the state Senate.

Illinois state Sen. Jeff Schoenberg said he called for the vote believing he had secured the votes for a narrow victory. Instead he fell short. The bill faced strong opposition from the state’s influential Catholic priests, who, among other efforts, placed letters in church bulletins urging parishioners to contact their representatives and ask them to vote no.

“Some of my colleagues told me they got calls from every parish priest in their district,” Schoenberg said. He sees the bill, which he plans to bring to a vote again next year, as a first step to keeping Illinois competitive in the field, even if no money was attached.

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“For a state like Illinois, which is already seeking to grow its biomedical research, the big part of the challenge is to slow the departure of funding and researchers,” he said, “not only to California and other states but from the country.”

Illinois’ experience illustrates the conflicting pressures on officials in at least some states. Stem cell research is an important emerging field in biology, and many believe that it could become the foundation for new industries that could generate well-paying jobs as well as cures for disease. At the same time, although polls show that seven in 10 voters nationally support the idea of stem cell research, the moral debate over using human embryos makes the subject politically controversial.

Even in states where there has been political support for research, there have been debates over how much should be done at the state level financially. California’s $3-billion initiative is well beyond most states’ reaches. Officials elsewhere say the difficulty they face is not only keeping top scientists, but also holding onto promising graduate students, postdoctoral students and skilled lab technicians.

Sarah Youngman, a spokeswoman for the University of Minnesota’s Stem Cell Institute, said she anticipates action from state officials to keep the institute competitive. Because the focus there has been on adult stem cells, which do not face the same federal restrictions as embryonic stem cells, Youngman said she thought the repercussions of California’s investment would not be immediate.

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“But it is a vulnerability for our institute. Three, four, five years from now, it could be a problem,” Youngman said. “The attraction of California to those using stem cells goes beyond scientists to lower-level researchers, the people who make the lab a lab.”

Further, the California Center for Regenerative Medicine, created earlier this month when Proposition 71 passed with 60% of the vote, also funds research using a procedure that advocates sometimes call therapeutic cloning, in which the DNA of an egg is stripped and replaced with the DNA from a donor, producing embryonic stem cells that are an exact genetic match to the donor.

Many scientists consider cloned stem cells to hold exciting possibilities for understanding why people develop such diseases as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or insulin-dependent diabetes. But opponents of the approach say it would open the way to cloning babies and argue that it is unethical to create embryos solely for research.

The House of Representatives has twice voted to ban therapeutic cloning, but the bills have been blocked in the Senate. California and other states that have expressly permitted such research ban reproductive cloning.

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For some leading stem cell scientists, the jockeying among states is both heartening and disturbing.

“It makes sense that states will respond to try to make up for the federal government’s deficiencies,” said Doug Melton, a Harvard University biology professor and a strong critic of the Bush policy restrictions.

“I think the California initiative is very important both politically and scientifically,” he added, “but in the best of all possible worlds it shouldn’t have had to happen.”

Dr. Wise Young, who heads the department of cell biology and neuroscience at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said he thinks California’s investment will expand the field of scientists pursuing stem cell work.

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“There are three ways that more researchers can be added to the field,” said Young, co-chairman of New Jersey’s recently created Institute for Stem Cell Research. “The first is to recruit scientists working in other areas to stem cell research. The second is to attract such scientists from overseas. The third is to grow such investigators from students and postdoctoral fellows.”

For now, Young said, the additional funds may create a temporary shortage of stem cell scientists and make it harder for institutions outside California to retain researchers.

“Because recruitment offers will be made to stem cell scientists by California institutions, there will be tremendous pressure on research institutions to provide [enticements] to keep people,” Young said. “This will probably mean millions of dollars of salary increases or promotions, and research support, to match the offers that are made.”

Aside from the potential financial boon for scientists, those funded through the California initiative probably would be able to avoid many of the issues facing researchers who get at least some of their funding through the federal government. Melton, for example, operates his lab under a dual system in which equipment bought with federal grants is marked so that it is not used for work on embryonic stem cells that are not on the federally approved list. Not having to worry about such things would be a relief, he said.

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“I don’t like the situation where myself and my students are planning our next experiment and thinking about the political election results,” he said. At the same time, Melton said, he thought funding at a state level, even at billions of dollars, was only a partial solution.

“It doesn’t do a huge amount of good to be reshuffling people,” said Melton, who is using embryonic stem cells to try to understand and cure juvenile diabetes, a disease that requires his two children to take daily shots of insulin. He has not had any offers from California, but he said he was concerned about the energy wasted by anyone having to start up operations in a new location.

Like many other stem cell scientists, he is closely watching to see the guidelines set up for the California agency, particularly any provisions for sharing information derived from the research and possibilities for partnering with out-of-state laboratories. The initiative requires the grants to be spent on research in California.

The 29-member panel that will set policy for the institute must be named by the governor, five university chancellors and other top lawmakers by Dec. 16, the deadline set for members to choose a chairperson and vice chair. Already, a number of appointments have been made, including board member selections by the chancellors of UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego and UC San Francisco, state campuses where stem cell research is underway.

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With little indication that the Bush administration will significantly revise its restrictions, those outside the state concede that California’s billions will put the state in a leading role in embryonic stem cell research.

“It’s kind of crass to say,” said the University of Minnesota’s Youngman, “but I think as a researcher, to a certain extent, you have to follow the money.”


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