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States Take Lead in Funding Stem-Cell Research

A researcher holds a box containing viles of human embryonic stem-cell cultures at a lab in La Jolla, Ca.   After approving nearly $45 million for embryonic stem-cell research in February, California's stem-cell agency has authorized another $75.7 million to fund research in the field.
Sandy Huffaker
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A researcher holds a box containing viles of human embryonic stem-cell cultures at a lab in La Jolla, Ca. After approving nearly $45 million for embryonic stem-cell research in February, California's stem-cell agency has authorized another $75.7 million to fund research in the field.

State governments have taken the unusual step of funding biomedical research – usually done with federal grants – because of federal political decisions to restrict funding for embryonic stem-cell research.

Stem-cell scientists are naturally delighted by the new avenues of support, but there could be complications if scientists in different states want to collaborate.

Whether they deserve it or not, embryonic stem cells have come to represent potential salvation for many people suffering from incurable diseases.

"This is why we are not waiting for anyone to do it for us," California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said. "We are creating the action right here in California."

By action, the governor means a ballot measure approved by California voters that provides $300 million a year for stem-cell research for the next decade. Although at the moment, most of the money is tied up in legal challenges.

But California isn't alone in its faith in embryonic stem cells. Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell said the goal of her state's $10 million annual funding was to find stem-cell therapies for a wide range of diseases.

But the reality is, Connecticut's support for research isn't only about health.

"It's also about our self-interest," said Paul Pescatello, president and CEO of CURE, a consortium of Connecticut biotech companies. Pescatello was one of the driving forces behind Connecticut's stem cell program.

"There are only going to be a few cutting-edge stem-cell research centers built around the world, whether Cambridge, England or Cambridge, Massachusetts or Connecticut, and they're all getting rooted right now," he said. "So we have gotten in the game, and we will be one of those stem-cell research centers."

And Pescatello doesn't worry that his state's funding is dwarfed by California's.

"Their $300 million is spread over probably over a hundred institutions in California. The Connecticut dollars, the $10 million a year, (is) spread among really two or three or four institutions — I mean mostly University of Connecticut and Yale University and Wesleyan University," he said.

When it comes to research support, most scientists firmly believe more is better. But balkanizing funding is bound to pose problems. California taxpayers will no doubt share any cures developed in that state, but they'll also want the benefits to go to Californians first.

And states will have to develop ethical and legal guidelines to govern how their money is spent. Susan Stayn said that's bound to complicate interstate collaborations, since state rules will differ. Stayn is a lawyer who's been working on stem-cell regulations. Only a half-dozen states have active stem-cells programs now, so the complications aren't severe. But Stayn said it will get worse.

"Because many other states are putting their hats in the ring. New York has a major initiative that it's announced, Florida is considering a major funding initiative, and several other states are considering moving into this field in a way that would support the science," she said. "And I think that as additional states become players I think the potential number of differences might only increase."

The states also face building a funding infrastructure that already exists at the federal level. The National Institutes of Health relies on scientific advisory panels to help them decide which research projects deserve funding. Harold Varmus is the president of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and former director of the NIH. He said most states will adopt a similar approach.

"The difficulty, of course, is that there is a finite number of established senior investigators who would be willing to serve on these review bodies in many states and institutions," Varmus said.

And that's just one of the logistical problems.

"It makes a lot more sense to have a federal research policy than to have state by state policies," he said.

Even so, Varmus is backing New York state's plans to get into the stem-cell funding game.

"The states are sending an important message," he said. "They're saying the public endorses this, and that is a message I hope in a couple of years the federal government would be able to respond to."

Even states that have stem-cell programs are hoping that as well.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.