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Originally published Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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States rethink stem cells

>President Obama's decision to lift restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research is certain to rekindle debate in a number of states that moved to pay for the controversial science after the Bush administration's limitation order but are now facing large budget gaps.

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON —

President Obama's decision to lift restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research is certain to rekindle debate in a number of states that moved to pay for the controversial science after the Bush administration's limitation order but are now facing large budget gaps.

Eight states — California, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York — have passed programs authorizing spending on embryonic stem-cell research since 2001, when President Bush announced that he was limiting federal funding to what turned out to be 21 stem-cell lines already in existence at that point. His decision reflected opposition to using taxpayer money in research that involves the destruction of days-old human embryos as a result of extracting the stem cells.

But advocates of the research cautioned against moving too quickly to reduce state money, suggesting that it could be some time before federal dollars become available for embryonic stem-cell research, given remaining bureaucratic and legislative hurdles.

"In these economic times, I think it's a reasonable question to raise," said Karen Rothenberg, head of the Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission, which awards grants. "But I think it would be premature to pull the momentum and signal to the research community that Maryland is going to walk away from this investment."

Even critics acknowledge that interest in Maryland's program — which also funds other, less controversial types of stem-cell research — has been strong. During fiscal 2008, the program received 122 applications for funding, of which 58 were approved, including research related to prostate cancer, breast cancer, brain cancer, cartilage repair and liver regeneration.

Johns Hopkins has purchased equipment and attracted top talent in the field, said Valina Dawson, professor of neurology, neuroscience and physiology at the university's School of Medicine. "Maryland money has allowed us to move in new directions that we would not have been able to," she said.

At the University of Maryland's Biotechnology Institute, state funds are enabling researchers to collaborate with counterparts in Germany, said Jonathan Lederer, professor and director of the institute's Medical Biotechnology Center.

But Maryland's House and Senate budget writers differed Monday on whether next year's stem-cell funding would be significantly reduced. House members said they expect to continue the investment; senators said the money could be very vulnerable.

This year in New Jersey, which in early 2004 became one of the first states to fund embryonic stem-cell research, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine cut funding by 75 percent as he worked to close a $3.6 billion budget gap.

Today, Corzine will unveil his fiscal 2010 budget, grappling with a projected $7 billion shortfall. Discussions continue about eliminating the funding altogether for the coming year, said Martin Grumet, director of the Rutgers Stem Cell Research Center, which this summer will use the last of a two-year, $3 million state grant that was used to create three new lines of human stem cells.

Even the program in California, where voters in 2004 approved a behemoth program funded by $3 billion in bond sales, has been slowed by state budget problems.

Alan Trounson, president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which administers the program, said fighting between the Legislature and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger slowed the state's ability to sell bonds. He said the institute now expects to raise $200 million to support the research this year, instead of a planned $300 million.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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