Md. cannot afford to lag in stem cell research race

January 21, 2007|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun Columnist

Congress will probably pass a bill to finance embryonic stem cell research with federal dollars, but President Bush will certainly veto it because of ethical objections to destroying microscopic human embryos.

That leaves the country about where it was in 2001: idling in the "Go" square of the most promising medical-technology game in a generation. As with the last time Washington blocked stem cell money, states must step boldly into the void, which means the $10 million in additional stem cell funding proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley is not enough.

Why spend more on stem cells? For the potential good of diabetics, spinal-injury sufferers, Parkinson's patients and other would-be beneficiaries, of course. But mainly for the state's economy. The cost of not launching a major stem cell program may be greater for Maryland than for any other state.

Our biotech industry is critical to the economy and in great shape to do stem cell research. But its proximity to Washington makes it heavily dependent on federal grants. A federal financing drought is driving biotech capital - both intellectual and financial - to states that are doing more.

The lack of federal money induced Peter Donovan, co-director of the stem cell program at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, to move to California in 2005.

Accompanying Donovan from Hopkins to the University of California, Irvine, was his wife, Leslie Lock, also a stem cell scientist. A third Hopkins stem cell researcher, April Pyle, landed at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Last year Neuralstem Inc., a Rockville company working to repair spinal-cord injuries, said in a regulatory filing it is considering moving its headquarters to California to qualify for some of the $3 billion that state has pledged for stem cell research over a decade.

California's program has been sidelined in the courts, but billionaire philanthropists and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have proffered loans until the litigation is resolved.

The program is about to award more than $100 million in research grants, has committed $12 million for training stem cell scientists and is seeking proposals to build $48 million in stem cell labs, says spokesman Dale Carlson.

In New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine just signed a bill to spend $270 million on stem cell labs and favors appropriating even more.

In his first speech to the New York Legislature, Gov. Eliot Spitzer proposed devoting $2 billion to scientific research; half would go for stem cell investigation.

But in Maryland only $15 million in public money has been approved for research on embryonic stem cells, which can develop into almost any kind of body cell and which scientists believe hold enormous potential for curing illness.

O'Malley's proposed budget would increase that to $25 million, but for the current program, would-be grantees submitted proposals for $80 million in research.

O'Malley "is committed to funding stem cell research and making Maryland a leader in the field," says spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. But to get there the state must spend more than $25 million and, more importantly, should commit to a multiyear program as California has. A five-year, $200 million package would do the trick.

Yes, this is a ton of money, paid by you and me, the taxpayers. No, it won't produce medical applications for years, or maybe ever. Of course, "just to throw money at it because New Jersey or California threw money at it is not the best way to approach the problem," as Gordon Feinblatt technology lawyer Abba Poliakoff puts it.

But intelligently generous financing of stem cell research should pay generous dividends - far bigger than those from "sunny day" grants and other conventional economic-development spending.

Fundamental science is like stem cells themselves: a wonderfully plastic, essential foundation for the future. Without basic research there can be no innovation, no entrepreneurs, no venture capitalists, no technology-job booms.

But industry can't afford to pay for research that is unlikely to pay off for decades. Unlike most economic-development giveaways, which just duplicate private-sector resources, government science grants correct a genuine market failure.

The federal government is the usual source, but the Feds have been out of the stem cell game since 2001, when Bush banned federal embryonic stem cell investigation except on existing, limited lines of cells.

So states must step in, especially states that have as much to lose as to gain.

A big Maryland stem cell program is a crucial investment in the economy, and maybe it will do some medical good, too.

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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