States vie for stem cell research industry
Scant federal funding for stem cell research has sparked a race among state governments to be at the forefront of the emerging field. California is the undisputed leader with its 10-year, $3 billion commitment to fund all types of stem cell research, which proponents say might one day provide cures or therapies for conditions such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and cancer.
Other states are vying for their share of the potential medical and economic benefits. Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes is pushing for a state-funded institute that would award $1 billion in stem cell research grants over the next decade. New Jersey Gov. Richard Codey wants his state to spend $500 million on a similar effort. “The developments in California got our attention,” says Debbie Hart, president of the Trenton, N.J.-based Biotechnology Council of New Jersey, a policy advocacy group. “We definitely want to be a player in this arena.”
Such initiatives could lead to lucrative patents that generate billions of dollars in state revenue or to homegrown biotech hubs that attract talented researchers and top firms. “The average biosciences industry job pays $62,000 a year, compared with a national average for all industries of roughly $32,500 a year,” says Gene Goddard, head of biosciences for Minnesota’s economic development office.
But the research faces opposition from right-to-life advocates who object to the destruction of embryos that occurs when stem cells are cultured. “When you destroy an embryo, a specific individual ceases to exist,” says David Stevens, executive director of the Bristol, Tenn.-based Christian Medical Association.
Stevens supports work on stem cells taken from adult patients, but some researchers say undifferentiated, embryonic stem cells carry the greatest potential. Embryonic stem cells form in the first two weeks after conception and can differentiate into a variety of other cell types, such as brain or muscle cells. Scientists hope to use them to grow new tissues that can heal injuries and cure diseases.
At least 71 bills introduced in state legislatures in 2004 would have restricted, rather than advanced, work on stem cells, notes Alissa Johnson, a senior policy specialist at the Washington-based National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Most of those measures failed, but bioscience advocates expect a host of similar bills in 2005.
Those that pass could have devastating effects on states’ efforts to build their bioscience industries, says Donn Rubin, executive director of the St. Louis-based Coalition for Plant and Life Sciences. The Kansas City, Mo.-based Stowers Institute for Medical Research, which opened in 2000 with a $1.7 billion endowment, for example, has warned it will leave Missouri if legislators there succeed in criminalizing embryonic stem cell research, Rubin says.
The federal government spends about $30 million a year on research of embryonic stem cells cultured before August 2001, but policy prohibits further funds for any other embryonic stem cell lines. States that choose to carry the research beyond those limits are essentially on their own, says Mark Frankel of the Washington-based American Association for the Advancement of Science, which lobbies for federal stem cell policy support.
“States that are more liberal in their policies and money might draw good scientists or graduate students from other states, or ultimately attract patients from other states that will then burden their health care systems,” Frankel says. A more fundamental question is if cash-strapped states run too great a risk by launching ambitious programs like those usually run by federal agencies, says Johnson of NCSL. Frankel agrees. “You’re asking taxpayers to put up a lot of money on faith, but no one knows whether this will come to fruition in five years or 25 years.”
— Joel Groover is an Atlanta-based freelance writer.