March 9, 2009 / 6:21 PM / 11 years ago

Calif., New York may benefit from stem cell move

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - California, New York and other states that funded human embryonic stem cell research after federal money was restricted in 2001 may be first to benefit from the end to those limits, experts said on Monday.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order reversing former President George W. Bush’s policy that virtually froze federal funding for such research, saying it was time to “make up for lost ground.”

Obama’s action paves the way for the National Institutes of Health, the government agency that funds biomedical research, to begin awarding grants to scientists who propose studies using human embryonic stem cells.

States such as California, New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey acted on their own to fund this research during the years of the Bush restrictions.

California’s program was by far the biggest. State voters in 2004 approved a ballot measure to provide $3 billion to fund embryonic and other stem cell research.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, said the state has awarded $635 million to date in research and facility construction grants.

“Californians were the first in the nation to support and fund embryonic stem cell research and we are big believers in the power of this revolutionary science to not only improve but to save lives,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement.

New York legislators in 2007 created the Empire State Stem Cell Trust to devote $600 million to embryonic and other stem cell research.

NOURISHING RESEARCH

These states are uniquely positioned to benefit from the expected flow of NIH stem cell research money, according to Michael Werner of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research advocacy group.

“The states that stepped out in front will have an advantage,” Werner said in a telephone interview.

“It’s never a waste to invest in medical research, I would argue. But from sort of a crass economic perspective, I think those states and those institutions and those researchers are going to be the ones who are going to be really rewarded now.”

State funds helped nourish a stem cell research infrastructure and attracted scientists who may not have had access to funding elsewhere, Stacie Propst of the Research! America advocacy group said.

“The people who were truly interested in that type of research went to those states. They weren’t going to stay somewhere where they could not do the kind of work they wanted to do,” Propst said.

The economic stimulus bill that Obama signed last month included about $10 billion over two years for the NIH, most of which will go to research grants. Stem cells studies could get some portion of that money.

Some states are dealing with their own prohibitions. In November, Michigan voters passed a measure to allow scientists to create stem cells for research using embryos left over after fertility treatments. And the University of Michigan on Monday launched a new stem cell research program.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells. Stem cells from days-old embryos can produce any type of cell in the body. Some scientists hope to take advantage of these transformational qualities to fashion new treatments for a variety of diseases.

Because creating these stem cells for research involves the destruction of a human embryo, some people call it unethical.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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