States Eye Stem Cell Research Economics

By: - January 10, 2006 12:00 am

Public funding for embryonic stem cell research — still restricted at the federal level — is expected to top several state legislative agendas this year, promoted by governors on both sides of the aisle in the name of economic progress and job creation.

Govs. Matt Blunt (R) of Missouri, Jim Doyle (D) of Wisconsin, Rod Blagojevich (D) of Illinois, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) of Maryland and Gov.-elect Jon Corzine (D) of New Jersey, among others, are expected to push for legislation that would support the nascent science, despite likely opposition from legislators and activists.

“We saw a dramatic change in the level of interest in state funding of embryonic stem cell research last year, and we expect the momentum to continue this year,” said Alissa Johnson of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Still, despite intense legislative activity, industry lobbyists say they don’t expect many laws to pass this year, because the complex and controversial issue will require more time to resolve than most politicians can be expected to commit in a busy election year.

Critics of the research — which can involve the destruction of human embryos — object on ethical grounds because they consider an embryo to be a human being. Meanwhile, proponents argue that the state has a moral imperative to support the developing field because it promises to save lives. Supporters also predict that the new scientific technique will spawn a lucrative new branch of medical research.

One particularly divisive battle is likely to persist in Missouri, where voters may consider a well-funded ballot initiative calling for a constitutional amendment protecting the rights of scientists to conduct the research and patients to receive resulting treatments.

Last year, Blunt — a pro-life conservative — vetoed a measure pushed by conservative legislators that would have made involvement in the science a felony. Later in the year, concerned his state would lose high-paying research jobs, Blunt saw his worries come true when Blagojevich, his neighbor across the Mississippi River, mounted a letter-writing campaign to lure Missouri’s top scientists to his state.

Earlier in the year Blagojevich, eager to secure his state’s high-tech future, bypassed the Statehouse and directed the Illinois Department of Public Health to award million in grants to stem cell research facilities in the state. Blagojevich is expected to continue his campaign in support of the science, possibly seeking legislative solutions.

In another contentious battle, Wisconsin’s Doyle, who last year vetoed a bill that would have prohibited embryonic stem cell research in the state that pioneered the science, is likely to seek legislative support for his proposal to provide million in public and private funds to support a stem cell research institute on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, where the science was pioneered.

Maryland, which currently has no stem cell research laws on the books, is scheduled to take up the issue after shelving it at the end of last year. Ehrlich, who is running for re-election, supports funding for research facilities but has not committed state funds to paying for the research.

Meanwhile rival Democrats who have announced plans to run against Ehrlich favor state funding for research, and recent polls indicate a broad majority of Marylanders support state funding. A major economic goal in Maryland is to expand its budding biotechnology research business.

At year’s end, New Jersey became the only state to award public funds for stem cell research, disbursing million in grants to research institutions in the state. But this month, when acting Gov. Richard J. Codey (D) sought legislative approval for another million in revenue and loans for the research before his term ended, the bill foundered.

The newly elected governor, Corzine, who announced his commitment to the science during his campaign, is expected to craft his own proposals for funding the research, which is seen as a lynchpin to reviving New Jersey’s flagging research industry.

California’s billion stem cell research funding program — the most ambitious in the country — continued to be sidelined by lawsuits and bureaucratic wrangling at year’s end, but state officials were optimistic that the program would move forward this year.

Last year, Massachusetts , Illinois and Connecticut joined California and New Jersey in supporting the science, with no restrictions. Massachusetts was the only state to pass a law supporting the research, without providing funding. This year, Massachusetts — home to Harvard University, an international leader in the field — is expected to pass a law committing state funds to the science.

On the other side of the issue, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has voiced strong opposition to the research and can expect a battle with legislators who have proposed a bill committing million a year for 10 years to embryonic stem cell research. If legislative initiatives are not successful, stem cell research advocates in the state have proposed a constitutional amendment that would appropriate million annually for 10 years.

In 2005, Indiana joined five other states — Arkansas, Iowa, Michigan, North Dakota and South Dakota — in banning human cloning for any purpose, including research. Laws in 25 states place some restriction on the research, although South Dakota is the only state that bans it altogether.

While recent national and state public opinion polls indicate that a clear majority of voters favor public support for the promising new research, religious and ethical concerns are expected to continue to plague 2006 gubernatorial and legislative attempts to pass embryonic stem cell funding bills.

The research, which raises ethical issues about the beginnings of life similar to those expressed by anti-abortion activists, has divided the Republican Party. Religious conservatives in many states oppose all forms of embryonic stem cell research, while some anti-abortion Republican politicians support the science for its life-saving potential and economic promise.

The science, which originated at the University of Wisconsin in 1998, uses human embryos to create undifferentiated cells that have the potential to become any cell in the human body. As a result, scientists predict that embryonic stem cell studies will some day result in cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s, diabetes and Alzheimer’s and in cell replacement therapies to repair brain and spinal cord damage, among other conditions.

In August 2001, President Bush announced a ban on federal funding of all forms of embryonic cell research except studies using previously created cell lines. Congress will consider a bill this year that would lift those restrictions.

The scandal surrounding South Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk, who in December admitted that he had faked results in his widely acclaimed therapeutic cloning study, quickly became fuel for detractors of the science.

But a subsequent discovery at the University of Wisconsin indicating that cloned cells could successfully be transplanted into humans has fueled optimism among the science’s supporters. 

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.