Monday, May 23, 2005

Stem cell research draws money, recruits and lawyers

While California lures scientists with its stem cell research money the process out comes to a halt. May 23, 2005

When voters in California passed a ballot measure authorizing state funding for a stem cell research center in Proposition 71, they were doing two things: one, bypassing the inflexible objections of the reactionary administration in Washington, and two, setting up a center that would draw researchers, private funding and business opportunities to the state. They have only partially succeeded, and there may be some bumpy air ahead even in California.

The lure of the Golden State is being felt up and down the east coast (the scientists haven’t seen the real estate prices yet), reports Nick Wade in the New York Times. The lure is stimulated by telephone calls from recruiters in California, who point out that the state will have $3 billion to spend. Several people may have noted that the experiment last week in South Korea, which seems to have efficiently cloned patient embryos, cost less than $300,000, so we’re talking serious play-around money here.

President Bush has repeatedly said he would veto any move by Congress to loosen the restrictions on federal funding, so if the research is going to get done, the states will have to do it.. The state and private money would have none of those limits and would be beyond his reach.

Other states have tried to get in on the act too, most notably Massachusetts (home of Harvard and M.I.T. et al), but its conservative governor is trying to put restrictions on the research that many feel would spoil the game.

According to Wade, the California recruiters are not having a hard time pulling scientists from the other coast. UCSF, has openings for six to eight biologists who, if they can afford it, get to live in San Francisco. John Gearhart, co-director of stem cell research at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins, told Wade he was “scared to death” he would lose people to California.

Other states and private organizations are trying to get into the act as well. Three New York City institutions, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Rockefeller University and the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, received a $50 million grant from the Starr Foundation over three years. The three will collaborate on their research and the grant would make the city another center for stem cell work.

Most of the foundation money comes from the A.I.G. financial company.

Other organizations also have chipped in research grants, including those centered around diseases some researchers think might eventually be ameliorated by stem cell therapies, such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

But back in California, things are at a standstill. The LA Times reports that six months after Prop 71, the efforts are mired in lawsuits and a move in the California legislature to put restrictions on the research that the proposal was aimed to avoid in the first place.
The California money is 10 times the amount available from the feds, without restrictions so far. It specifically funds somatic cell nuclear transfer, the therapeutic cloning that so upsets the President, especially if it comes from human embryos. Many California schools have also set aside funding to build the kitty.

But a state constitutional amendment is now pending in Sacramento that would give the legislature some say in how the money is used after all, which is forbidden by the proposition.
Opponents to the research also have filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Prop 71, and there are all kinds of conflict-of-interest problems tying things up. The state can’t sell the bonds it needs to raise the money until the legal issues are resolved.

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