September 21, 2004

A Stem Cell Controversy Comes to California

By Sheila Reilly

Rendered paraplegic from a diving accident 23 years ago, Bob Yant has a personal interest in Proposition 71, a California ballot initiative that would give stem-cell research in the state a $3 billion boost.

Yant — a Newport Beach resident, entrepreneur and member of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation board of directors — is a potential beneficiary of future stem-cell therapies that advocates say could revolutionize treatment of spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, cancer and a variety of other health problems.

“It’s important to give the best and the brightest minds the chance to discover how these cells work,” he said.

But stem cells, defined by the American Association for the Advancement of Science as “precursor cells” that can develop into different kinds of human body tissue, carry as much controversy as they do potential, depending on whether they’re donated by adults, or harvested from embryos and early-stage fertilized eggs.

Opponents of the initiative argue that stem cell research is immoral, because human embryos — or in Proposition 71’s case, microscopic blastocysts cloned or created in the laboratory from donated eggs and sperm — must be destroyed in order to harvest the cells.

Prompted by these ethical concerns, President Bush banned federal support for new embryonic stem cell research in August 2001.

Advocates of Proposition 71 say their bond initiative would only permit the use of blastocysts no more than 12 days old, and that state-level funding is needed to make up for the federal ban.

The measure would also put California at the forefront of a hugely profitable new industry. This infuriates fiscal conservatives, who complain that many of the initiative’s backers are the very people who stand to make the most money off the taxpayers’ investment — venture capitalists and California health-science corporations.

Money in play

Venture capitalists, biotech companies and medical advocacy groups — like the 35,000-member California Medical Association and the American Diabetes Association — are among the supporters of the California effort, under the umbrella group Yes on 71: Coalition for Stem Cell Research & Cures.

Supporters have given $12 million, while the opposition’s biggest contributors have given a total of $100,000 — according to a September 14 Associated Press article, that’s $50,000 each from the Roman Catholic Church and a single evangelical Christian donor, Howard Ahmanson Jr.

While many Democrats have come out in favor of the proposition, only two prominent Republicans have: former U.S. Secretary of State George Schulz and California Congressman Doug Ose.

Nationally, 52 percent of 1,512 Americans surveyed by the Pew Charitable Trust in August approve of embryonic stem cell research — up from 43 percent in March.

Prop. 71’s passage would make California one of the foremost providers of state money for the research, and its supporters believe the investment will pay for itself.

Laurence Baker, a Stanford University associate professor of health research and policy, studied the economic implications of the initiative at the request of the groups that put it on the ballot.

He said the measure, even with the state facing interest payments from the $3 billion in bonds, makes financial sense.

Growth in the biotech industry would boost the economy directly and indirectly, he said, health care costs might eventually lessen, and the state might benefit from licensing agreements that would follow medical patents.

“There’s reason to believe there would be tax revenues that are large enough to more than cover the additional interest cost during the first five years,” Baker said.

“Bad public policy”

But while embryonic stem cell research has its impassioned supporters, it also has a contingent of critics — most, but not all of whom, object to it on religious grounds.

Although the Yes on 71 Web site states that the initiative does not permit “reproductive human cloning,” Rich Deem, a researcher at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and one of the founders of Scientists Against Proposition 71, said that embryos will nevertheless be cloned in the laboratory, and, if implanted in a woman’s womb, would come to term as a human infant.

“A cloned embryo is an embryo and if it were implanted, it would turn into a baby,” he said.

Religious opposition to embryonic stem cell research is generally identical to pro-life arguments against abortion, citing deeply held beliefs about the nature of human life, and frequently drawing parallels with Nazi medical experiments.

In an online essay, Daniel McConchie and Linda K. Bevington of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, a Christian research and policy institute, wrote that regardless of the rewards of stem cell research, people should oppose it “whenever a human embryo is destroyed in the process. The utilitarian thinking underlying this research is what led to Nazi experimentation during World War II and U.S. government radiation experiments during the Cold War.”

Opposition to stem cell research is not limited to religious communities, however.

San Francisco Bay Area oncologist H. Rex Greene said that Proposition 71 is a misappropriation of public funds.

Greene, the director of the Dorothy E. Schneider Cancer Center in San Mateo, Calif., is also a spokesman for Doctors, Patients & Taxpayers for Fiscal Responsibility, a group of about 35 Proposition 71 opponents.

“It’s bad public policy,” Greene said. “This is as bad a piece of self-serving legislation that the state of California has ever seen.”

He said California has the responsibility to provide basic health care to millions of state residents lacking it, not to write a “blank check” for research.

His organization complains bitterly on its Web site that much of the funding for the “Yes on 71” campaign has come from venture capitalists who stand to make significant financial gains if it passes.

But, considering the enormous complexity of the stem cell debate, it’s no surprise that backers’ motives are hardly cut and dried.

According to a February 7 article in the San Jose Mercury News, Robert Klein, a real-estate mogul and a leading Proposition 71 backer, has a 13-year-old son whose juvenile diabetes could be treated as a result of stem cell research.

And on May 21 the Associated Press reported that major donors to the initiative include not only the founders and executives of biotech corporations like Genentech, Chiron and Amgen, but also people like Palo Alto venture capitalist Michael Gordon, a 40-year-old diabetic whose investment firm has no health-science interests.

“It’s entirely personal,” he said.

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