Maryland's gain

April 05, 2007

Limits on taxpayer-financed embryonic stem cell research imposed by President Bush in 2001 have so hampered federal efforts in this promising field that the director of the National Institutes of Health bluntly told Congress recently his agency was operating "with one hand tied behind our back."

But the federal limits to which Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni referred have helped generate huge interest in a new Maryland stem cell research grant program that takes a more broad-minded approach.

Science and the nation would be best off, of course, with thriving research programs at both the federal and state level, seeking cures and treatments for a wide variety of ailments. The success of the Maryland program's inaugural year illustrates, though, the wisdom of the state's speed in moving to try to fill the federal vacuum.

Eighty-six requests totaling $81 million poured in from academic centers and private companies in Maryland, all seeking a share of this year's $15 million in grants. About half the applicants proposed research using more widely available adult stem cells, but the rest would use stem cells extracted from embryos - a process Mr. Bush believes shouldn't be financed with taxpayer money.

Gov. Martin O'Malley was so impressed by the response that he's trying to increase the grant total for next year to $25 million - a proposal being weighed by the General Assembly against other spending needs.

Over the long term, the grant program clearly has the potential to pay for itself by spurring the creation of biotech companies in the state as well as providing opportunities for university researchers who might be tempted to go elsewhere.

Maryland and several other states were prompted to create stem cell research programs because Mr. Bush's opposition to using federal money is so fierce. The only measure he's vetoed so far would lift the partial ban he imposed.

Congress will try again this year to lift that ban; Senate debate on the issue is scheduled to begin next week. Bipartisan advocates of the popular measure should counter the president's narrow view by rounding up enough votes for a veto override.

Embryonic stem cell research offers great hope as well as opportunity; Maryland and other states can make a big difference, but they could never completely fill the federal void.

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