UC may benefit from stem cell bond

    Scientists and researchers at the University of California have more at stake than the selection of the nation’s president in the upcoming November elections. Voters will also decide the fate of Proposition 71, an initiative that would obligate the state to issue $3 billion in general funding for embryonic stem cell research in California.

    Cited as the “California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act,” the measure would support stem cell research currently taking place in labs at UC campuses and may bring significant revenue to the university, according to an analysis by the state.

    Stem cells are special types of cells found in unborn embryos and in the human body that have the ability to develop into many different types of cells. Current California law permits research using stem cells obtained from human embryos and persons who have already been born.

    Research involving the cells has allowed scientists to study organism development and cell replacement, resulting in medical advances in certain cancers and blood disorders.

    According to the Californians for Stem Cell Research and Cures, a pro-Proposition 71 group, future research has the potential to lead to cures for other diseases, such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and AIDS.

    “There’s a lot of promise in stem cell research,” said UC San Francisco professor Gail Martin, who co-discovered stem cells in 1981 and first coined the name. “There are a lot of problems and health-related issues that need to be addressed.”

    Citing ethical concerns, President George W. Bush issued an executive order in 2001 limiting federal funding to embryonic stem cell lines (a set of cells in production) already in existence at the time. UCSF is one of only two academic institutions with stem cell lines approved for federal funding from the National Institutes of Health. The university distributes cells from its lines to scientists worldwide.

    According to a joint analysis from the California Legislative Analyst’s office and the Department of Finance, the 2003-2004 UC budget included $370 million for various types of research, with an unknown portion of the funding allocated for stem cell research. The report also said that the UC system would likely receive a share of the grants under Proposition 71, which could attract additional federal or private funding for stem cell facilities.

    That funding could also help the university secure revenue in the form of patents, royalties and licensing fees resulting from research funded by the measure, the analysis said.

    “Public funding dwarfs what’s available privately, so it’s really the main driver,” said UCSD professor of cellular and molecular medicine Larry Goldstein, who worked with other scientific advocates to write Proposition 71 and whose own lab is beginning stem cell research. “When [funding] is missing because of politics, a lot of areas remain underdeveloped.”

    Proposition 71 would also create the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a new state agency that would award grants and loans for stem cell research in state facilities.The institute would also establish regulatory standards for research and oversee the development of facilities. A separate 29-member Independent Citizen’s Oversight Committee, comprised of representatives from certain UC campuses and other research and advocacy groups, would govern the agency.

    The initiative will also play an important role in attracting and retaining scientists in the area of stem cell research, according to Goldstein.

    “It’s not just that you want to see that there’s enough funding,” Goldstein said. “What you [also] want to do is to draw other people to join the field, to lower the barriers of entry for the best people.”

    Groups opposing Proposition 71 claim the initiative would place an unfair burden on state taxpayers to fund the research costs of universities and companies.

    “Prop. 71 was put on the ballot by venture capitalists who want taxpayers to pay their research and development costs, while they reap the profits risk-free,” said Wayne Johnson, spokesman for the “No on Prop. 71” campaign. “Here you have a group that doesn’t want to play by the rules — they simply want to appropriate billions to their own narrow area of research, irrespective of the needs of others.”

    Opponents of Proposition 71 have emphasized that they do support most stem cell research, but do not support the allocation of such a large amount of state funding for research purposes. They also pointed out that Proposition 71 mainly funds embryonic stem cell research while denying funds to cord blood and adult stem cell research, which have consistently produced medical advances. Cord blood stem cells are treating over 90 percent of sickle cell anemia patients, according to Johnson.

    “Stem cell research does have promise, which is why opponents of Prop. 71 support stem cell research,” Johnson said. “But Prop. 71 directs a hugely disproportional amount of state resources — all borrowed money — into one narrow area.”

    An August poll found voters sharply split on the issue.

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