States race to lead stem-cell research

New Jersey governor plans to spend $6.5 million a year over the next 5 years, California hopes for $300 million a year.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

This could mark society's next forward step as it moves from the information age to the bioscience era.

One important catalyst of this movement is stem-cell research - a controversial, new scientific field that analyzes the building blocks of life. Some people even envision an entire new medical field - which would involve thousands of jobs that could not be easily outsourced.

Seeing this potential, a number of states are beginning a race to fund the stem-cell field. Yesterday, the governor of New Jersey, in his budget proposal, said he wanted to spend $6.5 million a year over five years. Wisconsin, which considers itself a leader in the field, is already paying salaries and funding laboratories. A group is trying to get a ballot initiative in California that would commit the state to spend almost $300 million a year on such research.

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"In 20 years, you can't imagine a major university without a stem-cell program," says Andrew Cohn, a spokesman for the WiCell Research Institute, a research organization associated with the University of Wisconsin.

The field is growing so fast that last year there were 71 bills introduced in 29 states that could potentially affect embryonic or fetal stem-cell research, says Alissa Johnson, a senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Washington. Only five bills were actually enacted, but there are 34 bills being carried over in 13 states. So far this year, 11 new bills have been introduced in six states, she says.

"At this point most states are looking to regulate embryonic research via cloning," she says.

But, not all states are trying to enact regulations that limit research.

New Jersey's Gov. James McGreevey signed legislation Jan. 4 that would legalize stem-cell research. In fact, the Garden State feels it has a natural advantage over the competition. It already hosts the operations of such companies as Johnson & Johnson, Pharmacia, Ciba-Geigy, and Merck.

"We have more PhDs per square mile than anywhere [else] in the country," brags Micah Rasmussen, a spokesman for Gov. James McGreevey. "That's a reason why so many pharmaceutical companies have located here, and people make these type of decisions every day."

To encourage stem-cell research in the Garden State, last month the governor signed a law legalizing the field, including work with cells that cannot be used with federal funds. The state's $6.5 million expenditure will be supplemented with $3.5 million of private funds. "We plan to hire researchers from around the world," says Mr. Rasmussen.

Battle for PhD talent

The states' battle for talent can be seen in Minnesota. Last fall, Medtronic, the world's largest medical instrument device company, created a special chair, supported by more than $8 million in endowments, at the Stem Cell Institute at the University of Minnesota to attract Dr. Doris Taylor, who had been at Duke University. Her specialty will be helping hearts heal themselves.

She joins Dr. Catherine Verfaillie. "Both are in the top 10 or 20 in stem-cell research in the world," says Gene Goddard, who heads up the biosciences initiative for the state's department of economic development.

Last year, Minnesota enacted tax-free zones for bioscience companies. This session the governor is hoping to get funding authority for $40 million worth of bonds to be used for new buildings and infrastructure at the University or its partner, the Mayo Clinic.

Aside from the potential medical advances, the stem-cell research has the potential of providing high-paying jobs. For example, in Wisconsin, which considers itself a pioneer in the burgeoning field, labs are springing up to do research. "There are five different principal investigators, each with a lab of 10 to 20 people doing research," says Mr. Cohn, of the WiCell Research Institute, a nonprofit established to advance stem-cell research.

One of Wisconsin's draws is Dr. James Thomson, who made the initial breakthrough. "He's created an industry - none of this would be available without his discovery," says Cohn, who adds the state is now helping to train scientists from around the world.

California could lead in state funding

All of the other state funding and research, however, will look relatively small if the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative, a potential ballot initiative, passes this fall. The group promoting the plan envisions the state spending about $300 million a year for 10 years. It is promoting the effort as a way for the state to save money on healthcare costs if cures are discovered.

"If we just save 1 percent of what we spend on healthcare it pays for the entire $3 billion," says Robert Klein, chairman of the initiative.

Californians became involved partly out of frustration with federal policy. President Bush ordered the National Institutes of Health not to fund any research on stem cells harvested from embryos after Aug. 9, 2001.

Some Christian and conservative groups oppose the research on moral grounds.

But Mr. Klein, whose son has juvenile diabetes, envisions the state as helping to provide cures for such diseases.

"We need to seize the opportunity in a comprehensive and thoughtful way," he says. He says California has 50 percent of all the bio-knowledge in the nation and 30 percent of all the bio-tech companies. This critical mass, he says, is vital.

"The research can't be done well in small increments," says Klein. "And, since California has the resources, if it would spend the money - the other states' efforts can be complementary."

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