Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Long road ahead for stem cell initiative

Proposal to finance research qualifies for state ballot

A $3 billion state proposition to promote controversial stem cell research in California qualified Thursday for the November ballot, opening what promises to be a bruising campaign that pits moral critics of the research against family members of people with incurable diseases.

The ballot initiative represents an ambitious attempt to circumvent President Bush's stem cell policy, which severely restricts research in the field. Even so, some promoters of the research say state funding would set a dangerous precedent in departing from the system of federally financed biomedical research.

Supporters of the "California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative" said they turned in about 1.1 million signatures to California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, almost twice the minimum needed to put the measure before state voters in the presidential election on Nov. 2.

The measure, which requires a simple majority to pass, would authorize an average $295 million a year in state-backed bonds to be issued over 10 years. Although the bonds would be guaranteed by tax revenue, no payments would be due for the first five years.

The ballot measure would require all the state-backed research grants to stay within California, funneled to researchers through a new institute that would be set up to weigh proposals. Backers say it is designed to be self- financing and would require no new taxes.

The initiative is backed by prominent scientists and research institutions, including UCSF and Stanford University Nobel laureates, as well as about 40 disease and patient-advocacy groups. Opponents include the Catholic Church and other moral critics, along with some liberal groups that argue the price tag is far too high.

The debate is being watched around the world by researchers anxious to see the stem cell field take off -- if a stable home and financing can be found for it.

Peter Van Etten, head of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in New York, which provided a $500,000 grant to the initiative campaign, likened the proposition to a biological Manhattan Project.

"The California initiative is an extraordinary undertaking," he said. "If it becomes law, it could significantly accelerate research in many different areas of this field. Certainly it will put a significant amount of money to work in a very focused way."

Supporters say the ballot measure would put California in the front ranks of one of the most promising new fields in medicine, generating jobs and tax revenue even before the research pays off in terms of new treatments for such diseases as diabetes, Parkinson's and spinal cord injury.

The payoff in reduced medical costs would more than cover the cost of the investment, assuming the research produces results as hoped.

"California would clearly become the world leader in curing chronic disease and injury," said Robert Klein, a Silicon Valley real estate developer who serves as state co-chair of the initiative campaign.

California is "the only place in the world that can carry this off," he said, citing the state's large number of biotech enterprises and research institutions, which are expected to provide the bulk of the scientific talent.

But critics say the state can't afford to gamble on an unproven technology that has yet to cure anything. They also contend the measure will divert resources from other health-related programs with more immediate payoffs.

Stem cells are the progenitors of all the cell types that make up the body. Although stem cells can be found in nearly all adult tissues, the debate focuses largely on stem cells derived from early-stage human embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization procedures.

The embryonic stem cells are considered by many scientists to be particularly important for researching basic human biology. The cells also may become building materials, potentially, for transplant organs or for repairing damaged spinal cords and other severe injuries.

Despite that promise, the research is considered morally objectionable by some critics because the embryos must be destroyed to obtain the stem cells.

"You can't take a stem cell out of an embryo without killing it, and the embryo is the earliest form of human life," said Carol Hogan, communications director of the California Catholic Conference in Sacramento, a lobbying and public-policy arm of the state's Catholic archdioceses.

Backers counter that the early-stage embryos involved in the research would be destroyed anyway because they are left over from in-vitro fertilization.

The measure also would specifically ban any research involving the cloning of human babies, although certain other forms of "therapeutic cloning" -- such as to create stem cells genetically customized for a particular patient -- would be allowed.

Economic arguments also promise to figure prominently in the campaign.

State Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly both issued statements Thursday endorsing the initiative. They portrayed the ballot measure as an investment in California's economic future, akin to past investments in public education and transportation systems.

"To grow an economy, and to solve health problems, you have to be willing to step up and make investments," Angelides said during a telephone interview. "This investment is in the best tradition of California."

The state already has a law on the books promoting California as a safe haven for stem cell researchers. That was done to counter limits set at the federal level.

In 2001, the Bush administration sharply limited federally financed research to stem cells created before August of that year -- an effort designed to allow the field to move forward without financing the destruction of any more embryos. But researchers say there are too few federally sanctioned stem cell lines available. Now, scientists and members of Congress are pushing the White House to relax the policy. The California initiative backers say the state measure would still be needed, even if Bush relents or Democrat John Kerry, a stem cell supporter, wins in November.

A few other states, including New Jersey, have taken pro-stem cell positions with a promise of public financing. But none has moved as aggressively as the stem cell supporters in California to pay for the research.

Religious conservatives have made no secret of their opposition. The state's Catholic bishops voted to oppose the ballot measure during their spring meeting, and a coalition of stem cell critics is forming in the state to derail the measure.

"The people promoting this are manipulating victims of chronic diseases and spinal cord injury and other injuries into believing the cure is just around the corner, and that is absolutely not true," Hogan said.

Marcy Darnovsky, associate director of the Center for Genetics and Society, an Oakland group that advocates women's right to choose, also criticized the initiative Thursday, largely on practical grounds.

She disputed claims of a net benefit to the state from jobs and royalties generated in state-backed research centers. "That's a wish," she said. "We don't see any evidence to support that."

By: Carl T. Hall, Chronicle Science Writer