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California says 'yes' to stem-cell research

November 3, 2004 By Jonathan Knight This article courtesy of Nature News.

$3-billion initiative will fund creation of human cell lines.

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George W. Bush has won the presidential election. But Republicans are not the only ones celebrating the poll results: biologists who wish to pursue human embryonic stem-cell research have also had good news. All they have to do is move to California, if they aren't already there, and apply for a share of the $3 billion that voters have just approved for their field.

By 59% to 41% of votes, Californians said "yes" to Proposition 71, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative, which will raise around $300 million a year for a decade through bond sales.

The money will pay for research that has not been eligible for government money since 9 August 2001, when President George W. Bush limited federal spending on human embryonic stem-cell research to cell lines in existence as of that date. The creation of new cell lines involves the destruction of a days-old human embryo.

Most biomedical researchers believe that the number of lines available under the 2001 rule will be inadequate to realize the potential of stem-cell research, which might give insight into the causes of degenerative diseases such as muscular dystrophy and Parkinson's. Such discoveries may to lead to new treatments, and therapies that use embryonic stem cells themselves to replace damaged tissues could also emerge.

Bush's opponent in the presidential race, Senator John Kerry, had promised to reverse the ruling, a move that would have freed up an indeterminate amount of additional funds for stem-cell work.

With that option gone, the California measure is intended to close the funding gap. Conceived three years ago by a group of wealthy Californians whose families include diabetes sufferers, it will create a new research entity, the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, to distribute the funds and establish research guidelines. It will amend the state constitution to guarantee biologists' right to do embryonic stem-cell research, and protect the institute from interference or supervision by the legislature.

Economic boost

By insulating the research funding from the vagaries of politics, the crafters of Proposition 71 hope that researchers and companies will be drawn from around the United States and the world to California. The resulting economic stimulus will help pay off the bonds, they say, and could produce a significant return, depending on the success of the research.

A Field Poll taken two days before the election showed that the 'yes' vote was driven largely by a belief in medical research and its ability to find treatments for disease. That has been the message of the campaign, which raised nearly $20 million over six months to promote the measure.

Opponents, who raised only a few hundred thousand dollars, included moral objectors to embryo research and a larger share who worried about the money involved. According to the same poll, 45% of probable 'no' voters said either that California couldn't afford to borrow the money or that the state should leave it to federal government and industry to come up with the cash.

Several opposition groups are also worried about the lack of clear ethical guidelines in the measure, given the moral concerns surrounding the work. Now that the Institute for Regenerative Medicine has the green light, those groups plan to be vigilant, says Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland. "We'll be keeping an eye on what they do," she says.

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