Stem cell milestone

April 02, 2006

The recent passage of the Maryland Stem Cell Act of 2006 represented the rare convergence of good public policy with good politics. The outcome reflects well on both the General Assembly's Democratic majority and Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has indicated he will sign the bill. There was even a measure of compromise involved, a rarity in Annapolis. But such election-year machinations are trivial compared with the measure's larger significance: Maryland is set to become a full-fledged investor in the burgeoning field of embryonic stem cell research.

Stem cell therapies hold tremendous promise for mitigating disease, but it's likely going to take years, if not decades, to unlock that potential. Maryland's $15 million investment is a respectable first step in what could prove to be a long investigative process. It was President Bush's choice to support federal funding for only a limited number of embryonic stem cell lines that created this need - and unique opportunity - for Maryland.

So what's next? By agreeing to the legislation, the governor has clearly accepted the Assembly's premise that science, not politics, should dictate how the money is spent. Mr. Ehrlich has pledged that preference will not be given to adult stem cell research, a field already supported by federal dollars. Indeed, the legislation requires that no grant can be released unless a proposal is satisfactorily reviewed by an independent commission and evaluated by an independent scientific peer review committee.

Mr. Ehrlich and the Maryland Technology Development Corp. (TEDCO) need to move quickly to create this commission - and more-detailed guidelines for the program - so that it may hit the ground running this summer.

It's also important that the program be regarded as a multiyear commitment. While state grants should eventually generate additional private investment, embryonic stem cell research projects could be left high and dry if Maryland is not willing to maintain a certain level of financial support. That's simply the nature of research. The governor and legislature should plan on spending $20 million to $25 million on stem cell research next year, too - and for at least several years more (unless, of course, federal restrictions are lifted).

Maryland is only the fourth state to fund embryonic stem cell research. No doubt there will be a learning curve. But there are reasonable standards by which its success can be judged - discoveries made, papers published, jobs created, private investment generated. It is these things, and not short-term political gains, that make it an important and pioneering enterprise.

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