W HEN CALIFORNIA VOTED “YES” ON A $3 BILLION FUND FOR STEM-CELL RESEARCH LAST MONTH, NOVEMBER 2004, PATIENT ACTIVISTS ACROSS THE COUNTRY REJOICED. E-MAILS WENT FLYING: THEY DID IT! THEY DID IT!”
And congratulatory calls went out to stem-cell advocates on the West Coast. But it wasn’t long before people pie like Michelle Lane, state coordinator for the Parkinson’s Action Network in Louisiana, were back at work. Lane, 36, has early-onset Parkinson’s. She and her husband, Ronnie, have three children, one of whom has Tourette’s syndrome. And Ronnie’s mother has Alzheimer’s. For two years, Lane has been badgering state senators to pass legislation supporting embroyonic-stem-cell research. With California’s victory, her passion for the science is hotter than jambalaya. “California gives us enormous energy,” says Lane. “It proves we can win this battle.”
Election-year politics may be history, but the stem-cell furor that erupted during the presidential campaign is far from over. Local activists on both sides of the issue, be they patient advocates like Lane or pro-lifers who oppose embryonic research, are readying themselves for legislative battles at the state level. And on Capitol Hill, members of the House and Senate are preparing to reintroduce bills that expand embryonic-stem-cell research on the one hand, or clamp down on it on the other. California “adds fuel to the fire,” says Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, a coauthor of pro-stem-cell legislation. “We plan to go forward in every way we can.” Calif- ornia’s Proposition 71, which passed with a 59 percent majority, not only crowns the Golden State as the stem-cell capital of the country, it creates both new momentum and new worries for state economists and university administrators from New York to Minnesota: How can they entice biotech companies to their borders? ‘Will California lure their best biologists away?
Since President George W Bush announced his stem-cell policy in 2001 (federal funds could be used only on embryonic-stem-cell lines that already existed) scientists, patients and politicians have been looking for ways to sidestep restrictions. Prop 71 took a giant leap. The newly established California Institute for Regenerative Medicine will divy out as much as $350 million in annual grants over the next decade to support stem-cell science in the state, be it embryonic, adult or cord-blood research. Proponents say the measure could generate millions in revenue and up to 22,000 new jobs a year in the state. “If you’re a scientist who’s ambitious and wants to do research that has high impact,” says Larry Goldstein, a stem-cell biologist at the University of California, San Diego, “this is the place to be?
Even states without California’s mega-bucks are hoping to become stem-cell havens. Last month Wisconsin’s governor announced that a combination of state and private funds would be dedicated to build a $375 million “Wisconsin Institute for Discovery,” to be housed at the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus, where pioneering biologist James Thomson first isolated human embryonic stem cells in 1998. Farther east, blueprints for the Stein Cell Institute of NewJersey, launched with $9.5 million in state dollars, are in the works, says founding director Dr. Ira Black. Now, Black says, he’s’s looking for more money and he’s recruiting —not just basic biologists, hut doctors, too. “We want to move expeditiously from lab to bedside,” he says.
At Harvard, stem-cell scientists are pushing ahead with bold and ambitious research. Earlier this year, researcher Douglas Melton created 17 new human embryonic-stem-cell lines using private funding. Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, launched last spring, says he has since isolated an additional H lines, surging past the government’s stockpile of 22. Already, he has shipped out more than 300 samples, mostly to scientists in England, Israel, Singapore and Australia, where embryonic-stem-cell research is less restricted; now the requests are coming in from California, too. Melton hopes to use somatic-cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), or therapeutic cloning, to create new embryonic-stem-cell lines that have built-in genetic (diseases, like diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The payoff ; scientists could watch genes trigger diseases rather than working backward and trying to figure out what went wrong in patients who are already sick.
Stem-cell science holds promise, but cures are years away—if they come at all. For some Americans, including politicians and even some patients, ethics concernsover embryonic research (when does life. begin?) arc too great to justify the potential benefits. In the year ahead, their dismay over cloning, specifically, may grow louder. While scientists adamantly oppose the reproductive cloning of human beings (California’s Prop 71 expressly prohibits it), most support therapeutic cloning for research. National Right to Life’s Douglas Johnson calls that distinction “artificial.” Any kind of cloning, he’s says, “requires the killing of human e~bryos.” And while some states are becoming stem-cell meccas, others, like Illinois—where lawmakers narrowly voted against endorsing embryonic-stem-cell research last month-----are stepping back from the minefield. At the federal level, meanwhile, Bush has stood firm on his 2001 policy; when asked if he might relax restrictions now that the election is over, a White House spokesman said, simply, “No.”
That’s not what the scientists want to hear. U.S. government funding supports the vast majority of basic scientific research in this country. While developments at the state level are exciting, says Black, “we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that this replaces federal support.” Scientists worry that without ample money from the government, which mandates strict oversight and peer-reviewed data, critical findings could be kept under wraps and scientific innovation trapped within state borders. Under Bush’s current policy, a scientist cannot use a microscope or petri dishes bought with federal funds to study new embryonic stem cells created with private money. A patchwork of state laws, some of which clash with federal policy, will make things only more complicated, says Harvard’s Melton, and might even lead to a scenario of official and unofficial information. “That might work for the CIA,” he says, “hut not for science’
Even if embryonic stem cells cannot patch up bad hearts or recharge dead brain cells tomorrow, stem-cell scientists believe that the biological lessons learned along the way—how healthy life develops, how diseased cells go bad—could bring on a medical revolution. “Obviously, the home run is eradicating disease,~~ says Dr. Evan Snyder, director of the stem-cell program at the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, Calif., “but you can get runners around the bases with bunts and singles.” For Michelle Lane, a bunt that could stop the tremors in her left hand, relax her rigid muscles or slow her disease would he nothing short of a scientific slugfest.
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