Thursday, November 11, 2004

California is preparing for an influx of scientists and biotechnology firms, after voters there endorsed billions of dollars in state funding for embryonic stem-cell research.

Proponents of the California ballot initiative — approved 59 percent to 41 percent last week — hope its passage also will pressure Congress and President Bush to loosen federal restrictions on such research.

“It’s really a whole new world,” Daniel Perry, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, said of California’s vote last week to dedicate up to $3 billion over 10 years to both adult and embryonic stem-cell research, with preference given to the latter.

“It puts California ahead not only of other states and the federal government, but of the world,” said Mr. Perry, whose group pushed for the initiative.

California’s initiative — which will be financed by state bonds that won’t start coming due for five years — was designed to skirt Mr. Bush’s 2001 federal policy, which granted federal funding to embryonic stem-cell research for the first time, but limited it to a group of stem-cell lines already created.

The California effort will fund various types of stem-cell research, but give preference to that which the federal government doesn’t fund — namely, new embryonic stem-cell lines and embryonic stem cells derived through human cloning. The initiative specifies that groups can derive their embryonic stem cells from leftover embryos at in vitro fertilization clinics, or from using the human cloning process.

Supporters say such research could hold the cures to numerous diseases, but opponents say human embryos are alive and shouldn’t be destroyed in the name of science. They also note that adult stem cells — not embryonic — are the only ones to have produced any useful treatments so far.

“California has voted to support embryonic stem-cell research, jeopardizing both their moral and financial standing,” said Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council.

But other states may follow California, Mr. Perry said, especially once their top professors and biotech firms start relocating to California to obtain the research dollars.

Already, Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology said it will open a California laboratory. The Associated Press reported this week that former Massachusetts House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, who heads the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, is urging state lawmakers to support the research in their state, in order to keep up with California.

Dr. William B. Hurlbut, consulting professor in the Program in Human Biology at Stanford University, warned that although California’s initiative probably will draw entrepreneurs, it is “not at all clear that it’s a way to make money,” because the field is young.

California’s strong support, coupled with the likelihood of other states following suit, “will strengthen the hand of Republicans and Democrats in Congress” who are trying to lift federal restrictions, Mr. Perry said.

But Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, said the rest of the country simply isn’t with California, and the state’s move won’t have a heavy influence on Washington.

“A strong majority of the country believes life begins at conception,” he said, noting that Democrats tried to make an issue out of Mr. Bush’s stem-cell policy during the presidential election campaign, but it didn’t work.

The senator from Kansas said the majority of the country sided with conservative values, giving Republicans the White House and additional seats in the House and Senate, and making it unlikely that the federal stem-cell policy will change.

Mr. Brownback plans to bring back his proposed federal ban on cloning human embryos for any purpose, including research. That initiative lost steam in the past, but Mr. Brownback said there are more votes for his bill because of Republican election victories.

Dr. Hurlbut, who is also a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, believes that in the end a “patchwork” of state policies will force the president and Congress to address the issue.

The best answer, he said, is to get around the moral problems by finding a way to produce embryonic stem cells without creating and destroying embryos — a goal he is working to prove is technically feasible.

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