Sunday, October 17, 2004

Californians to vote on stem-cell research funding

My stem-cell story was badly botched by the editors at the school paper who can't determine what to leave in to get the intended effect. Apparently to them it's just words on a page all of equal value.

Prop 71


Mark A. York

California could lead the nation in a first of its kind state-funded stem-cell research program that would circumvent the restrictive policy set in place by the Bush administration in 2001 if voters pass Proposition 71 on this year’s Nov. 2nd ballot.

The bill is known as the “California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative.” According to the group “Yes on 71, Cures for California,” a coalition of disease and advocacy organizations; medical groups and hospitals, and 23 Nobel Prize winners, including Harold Varmus former head of the National Institutes of Health now president and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, in their public statement, Prop 71 is necessary to break the political logjam that has created a research gap. It will support research at California’s medical schools, hospitals and universities so scientists working there can find new stem cell cures that could save millions of lives.

As the bill and the scientific literature states, stem cells are “unspecialized” cells that can generate new cells, tissues and organs. “A stem cell is a cell that has the potential to differentiate into other cell types and stem cell biology investigates the processes by which this differentiation is controlled,” writes A. Murdoch of the Reproductive Medicine, Bioscience Centre, International Centre for Life, Newcastle upon Tyne, England in paper for Cambridge University in Nov. 2002. “Some cells from adults have this potential, but it is only cells from very early embryos that have been shown to differentiate into all cell types. For this reason, interest has been focused on embryonic stem cells.”

Sponsors of the bill, including State Controller Steve Westly, believe this research has the potential to lead to new breakthroughs in disease like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, HIV/AIDS, ALS, and spinal cord injuries, while providing economic benefits to the state. According to the bill, reproductive cloning is banned. It is strictly a medical cure bill. It will, according to the proposed law, authorize $3 billion in state tax-exempt bonds with $295 million per year allocated to the research facilities over ten years. Repayment will be deferred for five years to protect the current economic recovery period from an extra burden. “We’ve been swamped with media requests,” said Fiona Hutton, spokesperson for Cures For California:

The federal plan signed by President Bush in the summer of 2001, just prior to 9-11 allowed federal funding for research only on 63 existing embryonic stem cell lines with a ban on new research for any other lines, and prohibited new cell lines from being harvested from embryos created by fertility clinics worldwide. The California bill allows both adult and embryonic stem-cell research. Private biotechnology research facilities could fund their own research without regard for the federal ban.

Organizations like the “Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research” (CAMR) who the late Christopher Reeve helped found have worked tirelessly to promote embryonic stem-cell research and support all efforts at the national, and state levels. In a public statement, the group reiterates that there are not enough stem-cell lines available for federal funding to proceed at full pace, and turn research into cures.

As the bill notes, embryonic and adult stem cell research is not currently prohibited in California. But the issue at both the state and federal levels is about public funding. The bill would create and fund the “California Institute For Regenerative Medicine” to disburse the funds in the form of grants and loans to the research facilities.

Opponents such as “Doctors, Patients & Taxpayers For Fiscal Responsibility” oppose the bill for financial and ethical reasons. According to their public talking papers they consider the bill to be a “cloning act,” even though no human reproductive cloning is allowed in the bill. The group’s website links to articles opposed to embryonic stem-cell research, including one in National Review magazine highly critical of this type of stem-cell research, by Eric Cohen an advisor on ethics to the president, who consulted on the 2001 Bush plan.

“We object to the bill largely because of the financial cost of the bond, and a lack of oversight,” said Tim Rosales, spokesman of the group. “There is no legislative oversight from those who don’t benefit financially from the funding of the program. It is without legislative review and governor can’t address it either.”
Rosales said private biotechnology companies and venture capitalists who back the bill should “fund it themselves if they are so sure of the merits of the research, without tapping into the public funds to subsidize the research.”
When asked about the reproductive cloning aspect banned in the bill, Rosales referred to his group being sued by proponents over the language of “cloning” in the bill. “The judge ruled that cloning is the issue and the reference should be included,” Rosales said. When questioned on whether he and the group thought that stem-cell research is valuable in general, he said, “It’s an open question.”
“That’s just political rhetoric,” Hutton said. “Scare tactics. The Initiative prohibits human cloning, and a 25-member Independent Oversight Committee would review all grants in public open meetings before any funds are awarded to anyone.” Moreover, Hutton said that non-profit researchers take precedence over private for profit companies and the patents remain in public hands.

“That’s why the American Medical Association and people like former Secretary of State George Schultz support the proposition,” Hutton said.
In their public documents the opponents argue for adult stem-cell research where only a little success has occurred. The group calls embryonic stem-cell research “highly speculative.”

“The primary reasons we oppose Prop 71 are fiscal in combination with unproven science and some really bad provisions in the measure, “Richard Deem Researcher/Specialist Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center said. “The most egregious part of the measure is a failure to fund all manner of stem cell research.” But according to the bill it will fund both types of stem-cell research.

“The proponents of Prop 71 would like you to think that little of no research has been done using embryonic stem cells,” Deem said. “The reality is that mouse embryonic stem cell studies have been going on since 1981! This embryonic stem cell research has been plagued by problems.” According to NIH (National Institutes of Health) in their literature, human embryonic stem-cell research has only been underway since 1998 and scientists are still intensively studying the basics of stem-cell properties.

Deem claims everything that can be done with embryonic stem cells, can be done with adult-derived stem cells taken from umbilical cord blood, “Without destroying embryos,” he said. But proponents of embryonic stem-cell research say the embryos are destroyed by the fertility clinics that create them anyway, and according to the bill that’s where the researchers will obtain embryos for the program. The bill leans toward research of embryonic lines because the NIH funds adult stem-cell research from the federal 2001 proposal.
There were no federal funds expended in 2000 for research on human embryonic stem cells, “ said Don Ralbosky Office of Communications & Public Liaison for NIH. “The President's policy was announced on August 2001 and NIH funded its first hESC grant in the spring of 2002. Fiscal Year 2004 figures not yet avail.”

“National Institutes of Health (NIH) Support for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research:

FY 2002 = $10.7 million
FY 2003 = $24.8 million

Adult (human & nonhuman) stem cell research funding by NIH:

FY01 - $265.5M
FY02 - $305M
FY03 - $382.9M”

As the California bill states, it seeks to fund new areas of research particularly embryonic lines that aren’t currently funded in order not to “duplicate or supplant existing funding.” Supporters say the bill has the potential make California the center for biotech research and leader in this growing field.


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