Stem cell funding sought

Bills would dedicate $25 million a year

California has $3 billion program

Measure would support research Ehrlich opposed

December 19, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Fearful that California's investment in stem cell science will sap Maryland's biotech industry, two lawmakers are proposing legislation to dedicate $25 million a year to helping the state's scientists pursue the promising but controversial research.

Because stem cell studies can involve the destruction of embryos and a form of cloning, the Bush administration has funded only limited research into the emerging science, which proponents say could lead to treatments for diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes.

New Jersey was the first state to take a major step toward funding research that the federal government will not. But last month, California voters backed a ballot initiative to spend $3 billion on stem cell research over the next decade - 10 times the federal government's current level of support.

Now a similar ballot initiative drive is under way in Florida, and lawmakers in Maryland, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois are scrambling to keep up with legislation or funding.

"We now run a real risk here of losing scientists to other jurisdictions, California in particular," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who is sponsoring one of the bills.

"We're nuts if we don't do something," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, who is sponsoring the other bill.

Rosenberg and Hollinger would pay for the research from a portion of Maryland's tobacco settlement that is being used to pay attorneys fees to Peter G. Angelos' law firm. The final $30 million payment to Angelos is due next year.

The initiatives could put Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in a difficult position.

Ehrlich, as a congressman, was co-chairman of the Congressional Biotechnology Caucus, and he speaks frequently about the need for Maryland to maintain and expand the biotech industry growing up around the National Institutes of Health in Montgomery County and in Baltimore around the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University medical schools.

"My position was pro-stem cell," Ehrlich said. "We'll be predisposed to view favorably these bills, given my stand on the issue."

But the initiatives Rosenberg and Hollinger are backing, like those in other states, would fund types of research that Ehrlich opposed when he was in Congress.

Ehrlich backed the federal policy for stem cell studies, which prohibits the creation of embryonic stem cell lines, a process that involves destroying embryos. Funding is allowed only for studies on stem cell lines that were in existence when Bush set the government's policy in 2001, although scientists have since questioned the value of those cell lines.

"I believe this position, which respects both life and the need for research to save lives, is a positive step," Ehrlich wrote in a congressional position paper, which his administration released this month to explain his stand on the issue.

In his position paper, Ehrlich notes that scientists hope that stem cells created through a cloning technique - known as somatic cell nuclear transfer - could be used to replace or repair damaged tissue in a patient with little or no risk that the tissue would be rejected. But, he wrote, he voted to ban human cloning, including cloning for research and therapeutic purposes, as well as reproductive cloning.

"I am increasingly concerned that such scientific experiments, ripe with moral, ethical, and scientific implications, could be abused and misused by a few individuals in the scientific community," Ehrlich wrote.

Dr. John Gearhart, a stem cell researcher at Johns Hopkins, said he hopes Ehrlich will reconsider his position and fund research that the federal government will not. More money is always helpful for researchers, but if their work is limited by the policies Ehrlich supported in Congress, it wouldn't help Maryland keep pace with other states where research isn't restricted, he said.

"It wouldn't contribute much beyond what we can do at this point," he said.

Opposition

The effort in Maryland has run into opposition. Six Republican senators signed a letter objecting to the title of Hollinger's bill, the Ronald Reagan and Christopher Reeve Stem Cell Research Act, saying they "find it hard to believe that President Reagan would support a measure that would be at the expense of so many innocent lives."

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican and a physician who signed the letter, said he expects an anti-cloning bill to be introduced in the legislative session that starts next month.

He said he would oppose Hollinger's and Rosenberg's bills on ethical and scientific grounds. If embryonic stem cells were so promising, he said, private enterprise would be funding the research and federal restrictions on grants wouldn't matter.

"The taxpayers of California were sold a pig in a poke on this," he said. "To sensationalize and say, `My gosh, the biotech industry will collapse if we don't do it,' I think is just far-fetched."

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