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States and Stem Cells

Growing role of states in funding embryonic stem cell research can challenge researchers

by Susan R. Morrissey
March 28, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 13

When it comes to finding funding for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research, the National Institutes of Health—traditionally the primary funding source for biomedical research in the U.S.—may not be the place to look to first. Instead, a handful of states such as California and New Jersey are stepping up with their own funding mechanisms to support this research.

This influx of state funding, combined with private funding sources and limited federal funding, has created a complex labyrinth for researchers to navigate. To shed some light on this situation, researchers and university administrators gathered in Washington, D.C., on March 9 for an American Enterprise Institute-sponsored workshop focused on how states are becoming key players in the hESC field.

The genesis of this complex picture is a federal policy that only allows federal funding of research on hESC lines derived before Aug. 9, 2001. Of the initial 78 lines covered by this policy, only 22 lines are currently viable. In sharp contrast, the more than 150 lines derived since the policy was announced may not be studied with federal funds.

James F. Battey Jr., chair of the NIH Stem Cell Task Force, acknowledged that this policy is impacting the growth of the field, but he maintained that the current rate-limiting factor is the small pool of researchers working in this area. He pointed out that NIH spent nearly $25 million on hESC research in 2004 that went to support, among other things, 26 R01 (individual investigator) grants, six training grants, and two postdoctoral fellowships. In addition, NIH spent more than $200 million in nonembryonic stem cell research in 2004.

But other meeting presenters argued that NIH should be spending much more on this promising area. The small fraction of the NIH budget that goes to support work in this area "suggests that NIH is not putting a high priority on this research," said Wise Young, founding director of the W. M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience and chair of the cell biology and neuroscience department at Rutgers University, Piscataway, N.J. He noted that states have given this work high priority and that "they are putting their money where their mouth is."

Gearhart (right) discusses human embryonic stem cell research as Gulbrandsen (left) and David L. Gollaher, president and CEO of the California Healthcare Institute, look on.
Gearhart (right) discusses human embryonic stem cell research as Gulbrandsen (left) and David L. Gollaher, president and CEO of the California Healthcare Institute, look on.

IN FACT, Young predicts that state funding will continue to grow. "I believe that by 2006, state funding of stem cell research may exceed federal funding by an order of magnitude," he stated. This trend is not good for the country or hESC research, he warns, because it will concentrate this research in a few states.

Young also questions whether it's good public policy to allow states to address the issue "willy-nilly" because states don't have the experience in setting such policy. "We shouldn't have to reinvent this particular wheel," he said.

The best-case scenario, the presenters agreed, would be for the Administration to expand the federal policy and allow federal oversight of the growing field. Unfortunately, such a change is very unlikely.

"I think if the issue hadn't become politicized in the 2004 presidential campaign, President George W. Bush may have changed it," said Carl E. Gulbrandsen, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. Now, with the policy likely to remain as is for several years, states are set to play an increasingly important role.

One state at the forefront of this trend is California, which last year passed a $3 billion bond initiative to support stem cell research over the next 10 years. According to Gulbrandsen, the passage of such an initiative is a "glass half full" situation. He noted that while it is good for stem cell research and has helped spur Wisconsin Gov. James E. Doyle (D) to back the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery--which supports a breadth of biomedical research in the state, including stem cell work--the California initiative presents a challenge to other states to attract and retain talented faculty.

New Jersey is another state working to create a welcoming environment for hESC research. According to Young, the state has committed $150 million in 2005 for work in this area. There is also a bond initiative on the November ballot to provide $230 million over seven years for stem cell research. Other states such as Maryland and Massachusetts are also developing legislation related to stem cell research, presenters reported.

The growing state support of hESC research may also help keep some young talent inside the U.S. For example, John D. Gearhart, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, noted that prior to the California initiative, students who completed studies in his lab committed to postdocs outside the U.S. Now, students can look to states like California before looking abroad.

As states' role in this area grows, NIH's Battey expressed optimism that NIH funding can work synergistically with state funding. "We don't want a competitive relationship with states, but rather a complementary one," he said.



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