Ehrlich backing stem cell research

Effort could attract biotech companies and scientists to Md.


Offering his strongest position to date on a divisive moral issue, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that his election-year agenda will include a stem cell research component designed to bolster Maryland's appeal to scientists and biotechnology businesses being courted by other states.

The governor's announcement comes as the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, long considered a leader in the field, is smarting from the decision of a top stem cell researcher to take a position in California - where voters last year approved borrowing $3 billion to support the science.

Dr. Peter J. Donovan, who had spent little more than a year at Hopkins, informed the school recently that he would soon leave to take a faculty position at the University of California, Irvine.

Donovan was traveling yesterday and could not be reached for comment, but a colleague said that funding limitations in Maryland had factored into his plans.

California "will certainly be a productive and conducive environment for anybody to work in," said Dr. John Gearhart, a stem cell pioneer who recruited Donovan from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. The two are co- directors of the Hopkins stem cell program.

Stem cell politics

Ehrlich, a Republican, remained largely silent earlier this year as the General Assembly debated a proposal to spend up to $25 million yearly on embryonic stem cell research. Advocates argued that in the face of the Bush administration's federal ban on funding such research, Maryland needed to join California and other states spending public money to fill the void.

The Maryland bill died in April under the threat of a filibuster led by conservative Republicans in the state Senate.

The leading Democratic candidates for governor, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, have criticized Ehrlich for avoiding the issue. Maryland's stature in the biotechnology field is slipping under his administration, they say.

Ehrlich would not provide details yesterday about the contents of his legislative package, and a spokesman would not elaborate. Education leaders and Annapolis sources said the governor may be considering capital funding for a university research building, but supporters of stem cell research said that won't be enough.

"We need more than just state support for buildings. We need state operating dollars for research so there aren't more Donovans who go west, or to other states or other countries," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who was a sponsor of the House of Delegates funding bill. "We are not going to keep scientists here by saying we have a building to do the research."

Embryonic stem cells hold the potential for producing cures for Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's, spinal cord injuries and diabetes, scientists say. States are battling for a share of the pharmaceutical and other businesses the research could generate.

Maryland has a geographic edge, because the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are in Rockville, and a cluster of life sciences companies is located along the Interstate 270 corridor in Montgomery County.

But religious conservatives oppose the use of embryonic stem cells for such research, saying that lives are lost when embryos are destroyed in the process.

Speaking yesterday after a speech to celebrate the opening of a new biotechnology business building at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, Ehrlich said he has supported stem cell research since his days in Congress. He said the bulk of such funding should come from the federal government, but that states have a role, too.

They "are rushing to beat each other on this," he said.

Ehrlich's announcement carries heavy political overtones, and indicates that he won't stand on the sidelines when the debate is revisited in Annapolis during an election year.

Rosenberg and state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat, said yesterday that they will reintroduce legislation for research funding, and Duncan and O'Malley are sharpening their attacks on the issue.

Maryland support

A March survey for a pro-stem cell research group found that 78 percent of Marylanders supported using embryos left over from in vitro fertilization, with 13 percent opposed.

"Maryland is slipping in national rankings for biotechnology, and we are in danger of slipping even more," Duncan said yesterday. "It's an election year, so both O'Malley and Ehrlich are getting election-year courage to do things, now that polls show it is popular."

O'Malley called the departure of the Hopkins scientist "a shame."

"The greatest asset we have as a state is the brainpower and the scientific talent that we have here. Maybe this year in Annapolis we'll be able to settle this issue so that people don't feel that they have to go to other states in order to pursue some healing science and the power of stem cells," he said.

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