Funding of stem cells is debated

Scientists, officials are split on backing facilities or research

November 12, 2005|By JONATHAN BOR | JONATHAN BOR,SUN REPORTER

The prospect of state funding for embryonic stem cell research has Maryland's scientists and politicians debating how to spend the money.

Some want bricks-and-mortar projects - new laboratories to attract top stem cell researchers. Others want the money to go to research projects that the federal government won't fund because of the Bush administration's restrictions on the use of new stem cell lines.

In the General Assembly, Democrats in both houses favor direct grants to scientists, while Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has voiced support for new facilities to house stem cell laboratories.

Money for new labs could be less objectionable to the governor's conservative constituency than direct grants, while allowing him to claim credit for backing research that voters overwhelmingly support in public opinion polls.

But stem cell scientists themselves are not united on the issue.

At the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, which already has two floors of stem cell lab space in a new building, some researchers say the money should be spent on studies of stem cell biology as well as possible treatments and cures. They want funds to pay for scientists, technicians and equipment.

"My feeling is that we don't need more buildings and lab space," said Dr. Peter Donovan, co-director of Hopkins' stem cell program who recently accepted a position in California, where voters last year approved $300 million a year in stem cell funding.

"What we need is support for the actual day-to-day research, because a lot of it we cannot get from the federal government."

Across town at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Dr. Paul Fishman doesn't dispute the need for research grants but says facilities are also needed to attract top talent.

"The answer is that you always need both," said Fishman, a neurologist who wants to use stem cells to treat Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative diseases. "If you get money for new investigators, you're going to need space for them."

In a developing embryo, stem cells are the master cells that turn into specialized tissues in the body. Scientists hope they can be used to regenerate tissues that are under attack in such ailments as Parkinson's, diabetes and heart disease.

However, many religious conservatives oppose the practice, arguing that harvesting stem cells from embryos is akin to murdering the embryo. Supporters of the research argue that the embryos - no longer wanted by couples conceiving at in-vitro fertilization clinics - should be used to advance medical science rather than be discarded.

Advocates for state-funded stem cell research argue that Maryland should join other states that support studies involving newly created cell lines, which the National Institutes of Health cannot pay for under restrictions set by President Bush.

They say funding would also attract researchers and biotechnology companies - and prevent the exodus of scientists like Donovan to states such as California, New Jersey and Connecticut that offer stem cell grants.

In April, a Maryland bill that would have provided $25 million yearly for embryonic stem cell research died in the Senate after a threatened filibuster by Republicans.

Ehrlich remained largely silent at the time but last month announced that his election-year agenda would include a stem cell component.

Annapolis sources said the governor might consider capital funding for a university research building, possibly at the University of Maryland, Baltimore's budding biotechnology park west of Martin Luther King Boulevard.

The governor told The Washington Post last month that he was leaning toward a proposal to fund facilities. But this week, Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said it was "premature" to discuss the governor's plan, though money for facilities was under consideration.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who plans to reintroduce the $25 million spending proposal along with Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the money will be earmarked for research.

"My position is that I'm not going to oppose a capital appropriation," said Rosenberg. "But we need to fund the research. Capital would take three years at least before you've got a building. We'd lose scientists in the interim if all we do is fund the building."

Support for state funding of stem cell research is rising. A recent Sun poll found 60 percent of voters in favor of it, including 67 percent of Democrats and 48 percent of Republicans.

Underlying whatever choice lawmakers make is another question: How far does $25 million go?

If the priority is on research grants, the answer is relatively simple. One benchmark is the average amount the NIH spends on research projects - about $200,000 a year.

The figure increases to about $300,000 once the NIH adds indirect costs for things like equipment, administration and the cost of complying with federal regulations, scientists say.

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