U.S. states vie for researchers


Pioneer Founding member
States Vie For Stem-Cell Scientists

by Christine Vestal, Stateline.org Staff Writer
January 15, 2008

Far from resolving an epic moral quandary, last year's groundbreaking discovery that ordinary skin cells eventually could replace the use of human embryos in stem-cell research actually stoked the fiery debate over the cutting-edge science.

Much of that battle is being waged in state capitals.

At the forefront, seven big states are leading the world in political and financial support for embryonic stem-cell research.

Their goal: Attract the best stem-cell scientists from around the globe and become a hub for a multi-billion-dollar bioscience industry. So far, their plan appears to be working.

In the past two years, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Wisconsin have awarded some $230 million in grants -- more than three times as much as the federal government spent on embryonic stem-cell studies in that time -- and there has been no shortage of scientists seeking the money.

Three more states -- Iowa, Massachusetts and Missouri -- have affirmed the legality of the research in hopes of keeping or encouraging scientists to work within their borders.

But six others -- Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, North Dakota and South Dakota -- now ban studies that result in the destruction of human embryos, and Arizona bars state funding for embryonic studies. These states have positions closer to those of Japan and most European countries.

Except in these states, work on embryonic stem cells is free to go on in the United States at places such as universities and private, nonprofit and corporate laboratories -- as long as no federal money is involved. But states that want to be players in the nascent stem-cell arena are finding they must ante up with state financing and a science- friendly environment.

Polls indicate a majority of Americans approve of embryonic stem-cell research, which explores special cells in 5-day-old embryos that have the unique ability to transform into cells from any organ tissue in the body. Scientists say these so-called pluripotent cells hold the keys to discovering the causes and cures for many human ailments, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Lou Gehrig's disease, juvenile diabetes, blindness and spinal-cord and brain injuries.

But President George W. Bush, the Catholic Church and right-to-life groups have cited the same moral objections they raise to abortion in demanding that human embryos -- which they regard as the beginning of life -- not be sacrificed, even in a search for cures to save human lives. Instead, they pressed for research into non-controversial adult stem cells.

The latest discovery satisfies those with moral objections and dramatically tips the balance toward more work on skin cells. But for scientific reasons, embryonic studies won't be abandoned just yet.

Embryonic stem-cell research is still the "gold standard" for scientists, said Jonathan Moreno at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics. "Everyone is saying the future is with the new cells. But we're not in the future yet. It's going to take several years to get there."
Scramble for scientists

Among states seeding the fledgling science, California is the bellwether with a $3 billion fund of taxpayer dollars being spent to build world-class research labs and lure leading stem-cell scientists to the sunny West Coast. When all seven states' investments are totaled, the commitment comes to nearly $5 billion over the next 10 years. Massachusetts could add another $1 billion.

States with a financial and political climate that welcomes embryonic stem-cell work may shift more emphasis to the new techniques, but existing investments in embryonic studies will continue as well. "States that have chosen to fund the research are in an ideal position," said Bernard Siegel, founder of the Genetics Policy Institute, a nonprofit stem-cell advocacy group. "Scientists are energized by the new developments, and many of the best and brightest already are flocking to California and other states with generous grants and friendly science policies."

Read the complete story at stateline.org.

This article was excerpted from "State of the States 2008," Stateline.org's annual report on significant state policy developments and trends. The 72-page report will be published Jan. 16. You can order a print copy, while supplies last. Or register for a PDF version.

1Religious opponents hailed the skin-cell breakthrough as proof that research involving the destruction of embryos is unnecessary and must end. Scientists countered that studies on stem cells harvested from human embryos must continue for at least several more years while the new technique is perfected. A subsequent report, published in a scientific journal Jan. 11, revealed that stem cells had been produced from human embryos in a private U.S. lab without destroying the embryos, adding to already mounting enthusiasm for the science although that technique may not hold as much promise as the skin cell method, because it is more difficult to perform, scientists say. In addition, religious leaders strongly objected to early reports of the research in 2006, and administration officials so far have said the federal government is not likely to approve it for funding