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The politics and science of state-by-state stem-cell research

ASK THIS | February 16, 2006

The ban on federal funding for most embryonic stem-cell research has prompted discussion of state funding. Here advocate Sean Tipton lists the questions he feels reporters should ask to better deal with the issues and status of state-funded stem-cell research.

By Sean Tipton

Q: So far, due to litigation, no states have allocated money for research. Will current or future cases be tied up for years? Or will they be resolved quickly? In a related question, for states proposing institutes or buildings, what ensures that any research will actually get done? Will buildings stand empty?

Q: What objections have opponents of stem-cell research raised? Are they viable objections—i.e., situations that might actually come to pass? How do the scientists know this?

Q: In your state, is there legislation pending? If yes, is it primarily negative (bans and prohibitions) or positive (grants or funding)? If there’s little movement, why is that the case? Why are some states hoping to go as far as altering state constitutions?

Q: Will a state-by-state funding model pit states against each other? Do states want this?

First, editors need to ask themselves a question: who have they sent to cover the issue? Political reporters or science reporters? The questions asked will differ depending on the reporter, and unless both sides of the issue get coverage, key points will be missed.

For instance, many politicians claim to support stem-cell research, but it’s important to pin them down on what they mean. Two distinct kinds of research exist in this area: adult stem-cells and embryonic stem cells. While most scientists feel that embryonic stem-cells—derived from embryos whose cells have not differentiated into heart cells, liver cells, brain cells, etc.—hold more therapeutic promise than adult stem-cells, the embryonic stem-cells are far more controversial as well.

The Bush Administration has prohibited most embryonic research: only embryo lines created before August 9, 2001, are eligible for federal dollars, which have been the prime sources for all science funding for nearly sixty years. However, some politicians—the governor of Maryland, for instance—have learned to walk the fence by claiming they support “stem-cell research”, when they mean only adult stem-cells. In this way, they can try to put their best foot forward to both right-to-life groups and pro-stem-cell groups.

In Maryland, along with Massachusetts and other states, patients who have degenerative diseases and the parents of such patients have been the prime movers behind the push for funding. In large part, patients do not care where the research gets done, or how: As long as scientists have resources to investigate the problem, such details matter little to them.

The same is not true in other states. For instance, scientists at the University of Wisconsin helped pioneer stem-cell research in the 1980s and 1990s, and that state’s efforts to fund stem-cell research derive in part from a desire to maintain their flagship university’s competitive edge.

The main competition for Wisconsin and every other state is California. Voters there approved a ballot measure in 2004 to develop the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which would provide $3 billion for stem-cell and related research in California state universities and research centers. And although litigation has prevented any money from being allocated, the legal issues will likely be resolved soon, and an explosion of grant money may follow. The prospect of available money could entice promising scientists in many states to move, unless their own home states can match such support. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say there’s a fear of California in many states.

As noted, the California initiative has been tied up in legislation. Opponents there have not prevented allocation on the grounds that such research should not be done; with the referendum passed, they are powerless to do so. Instead, they have sued on the grounds that the setup of the institute violates the state constitution and that the institute will lead to conflicts of interest among certain groups. While some litigators are likely concerned about these issues and wish to resolve them, the majority are using it as a screen for deeper opposition to any embryonic stem-cell research.

California’s institute, because of the size and relative importance of the state, has gotten the most media attention, but it is not the only model available for states to follow. The advantages of an institute are, one, its central focus on deciding what research gets done and who will do it; and, two, the fact that universities can draw clear lines of demarcation between funding from the National Institutes of Health (which as a federal agency cannot support most embryonic stem-cell research) and CIRM. The second point highlights the efforts all states hoping to fund stem-cell research will have to make in order to not violate federal guidelines. Illinois also recently announced plans to form a stem-cell institute.

Other states have approached the matter in different ways: Connecticut proposes tax credits for those who carry out research, while New Jersey supports direct grants to university scientists. Maryland has offered to construct buildings for the state university, and a movement in Missouri is afoot to alter the state constitution to make it explicit that therapeutic measures will be allowed. In contrast, South Dakota and Michigan have mirrored the federal government by enacting bans on certain types of research. In the upcoming years, I expect to see a number of initiatives, both positive and negative, in many states across the country.

Of course, the reason states even need to have this debate is the Bush Administration’s de facto ban on embryonic stem cell research. For the better part of sixty years, the best biomedical research hinged on funding from the NIH. Perhaps instead of forcing legislatures to take up the issue, and forcing scientists to weigh different funding rules in different states when considering where to live, the federal government should lift its restrictions and let a powerful, proven funding system work.

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My group, the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, aggregates state-by-state news. Click here to see it.  

In addition, click here for an NIH link that describes the intricacies of the federal government’s stem-cell funding policies and practices.

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