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States, Foundations Lead the Way After Bush Vetoes Stem Cell Bill

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Science  28 Jul 2006:
Vol. 313, Issue 5786, pp. 420-421
DOI: 10.1126/science.313.5786.420

Last week was a roller-coaster ride for supporters of legislation to make more human embryonic stem (ES) cell lines available to federally funded researchers. After achieving a long-sought victory in the Senate, the bill, H.R. 810, fell to a presidential veto on 19 July.

But to many, George W. Bush's action only marked another step into an era in which private entities and state governments assume greater responsibility for the funding of biomedical research. Rather than being despondent over the veto, many stem cell advocates are feeling pumped up. One is California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who announced last week that the state is loaning the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) $150 million to get rolling. “I think with one stroke, the president energized the CIRM program,” said CIRM President Zach Hall at a 20 July press conference. Sean Morrison, a stem cell researcher at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, agrees that the president's veto speech was “the best advertising we could have asked for.” In fact, he says, a donor handed university officials a check for $50,000 right after the White House announcement.

CREDITS: CHARLES DHARAPAK/AP PHOTO (IMAGE); COMPILED BY NEWS STAFF FROM MEDIA SOURCES

Schwarzenegger's action, in effect, buys up most of the $200 million in “bond anticipation notes” that the state treasurer arranged for last year as a “bridge loan” while CIRM awaits the resolution of lawsuits that have obstructed the $3 billion bond issue voters passed in November 2004. CIRM board Chair Robert Klein has already gotten commitments for most of the remaining $50 million. Hall said the new money will go for research grants, with checks going out early next year.

Schwarzenegger, a Republican, was not the only governor to respond quickly to the Bush veto. Illinois Democrat Rod Blagojevich, who wants state legislators to approve $100 million for a stem cell program, announced that he is diverting $5 million from his budget for the research on top of $10 million awarded to seven Illinois institutions earlier this year. Other states, including Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, are eager to become hotbeds of stem cell research, and Missouri is poised to enter the fray should voters this fall approve an amendment to the state constitution that would legalize human ES cell research.

A yes vote in Missouri—polls show the initiative leading by 2 to 1—would unleash the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City. The 6-year-old Stowers, with an endowment of $2.5 billion, is keen to fund human ES cell research but has been restricted by strong right-to-life forces in the state. Recently, Stowers circumvented the problem by setting up a Stowers Medical Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is supporting Harvard stem cell researcher Kevin Eggan to the tune of $6 million over 5 years. Another Harvard researcher, Chad Cowan, was recently added to the Stowers payroll. The institute is now awaiting the result of the ballot initiative. Stowers President William Neaves says the institute plans to “aggressively recruit” top stem cell researchers, as many as it can get, over the next 2 years. If the initiative passes, they will work in Missouri; if not, Stowers intends to establish new programs in stem-cell-friendly states.

The nation's largest private medical philanthropy, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), is also likely to be funding more stem cell research. Although HHMI doesn't target particular research areas, its president, Thomas Cech, says that “nature abhors [the] vacuum” created by National Institutes of Health funding restrictions. He says 26 of the institute's 310 investigators “have said they plan to use human ES cells at some point”—in addition to eight who already do so.

Another private entity planning an expanded role is the Broad Foundation in Los Angeles, California, which has already donated $25 million for a center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “We're looking at what else is happening at UCLA [the University of California, Los Angeles] and elsewhere,” says Eli Broad. “If they can't get other funding for facilities or programs, we'll look at making grants.” As for the presidential veto, he, too, says, “I think it will stimulate more private participation.”

Stem cell researcher Evan Snyder of the Burnham Institute in San Diego, California, agrees. He speculates that large foundations such as the March of Dimes and the American Heart Association (AHA) may rethink their policies. AHA, for example, funds research on adult stem cells but stays away from human ES cells. Snyder also thinks venture capitalists, who have largely stayed away from human ES cells as both controversial and too far from market readiness, will be more willing to invest in the work. Currently, only two biotech companies, Geron and Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), are invested in a big way in human ES cells. “I really feel this issue has just begun in terms of public debate,” says ACT CEO William Caldwell.

Indeed, a major but unquantifiable resource for stem cell research has been large gifts by private individuals. Harvard spokesperson B. D. Colen says that most of the $40 million in private funds raised by the Harvard Stem Cell Institute has come from individuals. Says Morrison: “It's not very often that an opportunity this good comes along for private philanthropy to play a leadership role in biomedical research.” Access to private and state funds may also allow scientists to attempt to cultivate disease-specific cell populations through the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer. The technique, otherwise known as research cloning, would not have been permitted even under H.R. 810, and that prohibition is not expected to change in the foreseeable future.

Yet Colen and others emphasize that the federal government still plays an important role. “There's no way private philanthropy can make up for what NIH normally provides” in terms of the magnitude of funding and the chance to standardize policies and procedures, Colen says. And there's another commodity that is just as valuable as money to scientists, says Harvard stem cell researcher Len Zon: the time to pursue their research. The funding hustle “puts many researchers into a place where they're uncomfortable,” says Zon. That search, he adds, “eats up time … time taken away from their research.”

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