Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Stem Cell Work Gets States’ Aid After Bush Veto

The New York Times
Stem Cell Work Gets States’ Aid After Bush Veto

CHICAGO, July 24 — President Bush’s veto of legislation to expand federally financed embryonic stem cell research has had the unintended consequence of drawing state money into the contentious field and has highlighted the issue in election campaigns across the country.

Two governors seized the political moment Thursday, the day after the veto, to raise their ante for stem cell research.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, a Republican who helped Mr. Bush win a second term but has long disagreed with him on this research, cited the veto as he lent $150 million from the state’s general fund to pay for grants to stem cell scientists. In Illinois, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, a Democrat opposed to most every White House initiative, offered $5 million for similar grants in his state.

Before the announcements, the only money available was $72 million that five states had allocated for the research and $90 million that the National Institutes of Health had provided since 2001 for work on a restricted number of stem cell lines.

Several other governors, including one Republican, M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut, denounced the president’s veto, his first, in a sign of the political potency of the stem cell debate.

Within hours, too, the issue sprang to the forefront of some crucial campaigns, including ones for governor, senator and representative in Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Missouri and Tennessee.

In many cases, Republican moderates, mindful of consistent polls showing public support for expanded stem cell research and expecting the promised attacks from Democrats, sought to distinguish their positions from their president’s.

For Mr. Schwarzenegger, who is running for re-election in a state dominated by Democrats, support for stem cell research has helped position him as a centrist, but his Democratic opponent, Phil Angelides, the state treasurer, tried to one-up him by taking credit for the loan.

Sean Tipton, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, the lead lobbyist for the bill Mr. Bush vetoed, said, “In terms of actually getting some resources to the scientists, it turns out like it may be a good week.”

“I also think there’s symbolic significance,” Mr. Tipton said. “It sends a strong signal to patients that there are some politicians that care about them and want to see them taken care of.”

Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, said of the president, “While he recognizes that states have the legal power to use their own funds for embryonic stem cell research, he hopes researchers and entrepreneurs will focus on developing effective cures,” including those “that don’t involve controversial practices.”

Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee dismissed the initiatives in Illinois and California as a “public relations gimmick” to divert attention from a debate over whether scientists should be allowed to create embryos through cloning.

“It’s regrettable,” Mr. Johnson said, “but it’s really a matter of their trying to focus public attention on an issue that is significant but is not really the front line of this battle.”

In Florida, stem cell research is a rare point of contention between two Republicans vying to succeed the president’s brother Jeb as governor. But when one of them, Attorney General Charlie Crist, announced that he “respectfully” disagreed with the veto, his rival Tom Gallagher, the chief financial officer, accused Mr. Crist of taking “every opportunity to disagree with the governor and the mainstream of the party.”

Meanwhile, Rod Smith, the Florida state senator who is the Democratic candidate for governor, promised, “When I become governor, we are absolutely going to do stem cell research and we are going to fund it in this state.”

In Maryland, Democratic hopefuls in the governor’s race responded to the veto with visits to the homes of quadriplegics and patients with Parkinson’s disease who could benefit from stem cell research, while the Republican incumbent, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., pointed to his support of the research as evidence that he did not “govern from the right or the left but the center, where most of us are.”

In Colorado, Representative Diana DeGette, a Democrat and a sponsor of the vetoed legislation, staged a protest rally on Friday when the president visited her district for a $1,000-a-plate luncheon on behalf of Rick O’Donnell, a Republican who supports his position.

Nowhere is the issue hotter than in Missouri, where voters in November are likely to face a ballot initiative supporting stem cell research, and where Senator Jim Talent, a Republican who is seeking re-election, opposes it. Mr. Talent’s Democratic challenger, Claire McCaskill, the state auditor, highlighted the issue last week when she delivered the Democrats’ radio address and then initiated a conference call with national reporters to spotlight her support.

The moves in California and Illinois continue the patchwork pattern of public financing for stem cell research since 2001, when Mr. Bush announced his policy restricting how federal money could be used in the arena.

More than 100 bills have been considered over the past two years by dozens of state legislatures, with one, South Dakota’s, banning such research altogether and five — in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey — allocating state resources to the effort. Other states, including Indiana, Massachusetts, Virginia and Wisconsin, have taken steps to support stem cell science without directly paying for research, while Arizona, North Carolina and Virginia have formed groups to study their state’s role in the emerging field.

Mr. Schwarzenegger’s announcement on Thursday of the $150 million loan will provide the single largest public pot yet available.

“I think with one stroke, the president energized” the program, said Zach W. Hall, the president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which had an anemic $14 million to spread among 16 training grants before the veto, and which will soon be flush. “It’s not what we would have wanted, but it did have that beneficent side effect.”

For California, the $150 million is half the $300 million per year that would be provided under a decade-long, $3 billion bond issue that 59 percent of voters approved in 2004. Taxpayer groups sued to block the bonds and appealed a verdict in May that favored the state. At the same time, “bond anticipation notes” floated in the interim found little favor in the market. The $150 million loan is intended to fill that shortfall and would be repaid by bond proceeds, presuming the state prevails in court.

“Arnold is supposed to be a Republican, so I don’t understand his thinking here with President Bush. It seems like he’s going against the party line,” said Dana Cody, executive director of the Life Legal Defense Foundation, one of the groups suing the state. “It’s very inconsistent with the governor’s platform, if you will, of ‘we’re tired of being taxed.’ That’s $150 million coming out of the taxpayers’ pocket for something that is questionable at best because of the litigation.”

Asked at a news conference in Sacramento on Friday about the political implications of making such a forceful public move to oppose the president he has previously supported, Mr. Schwarzenegger said, “You don’t have to agree with someone on every issue.”

“It doesn’t matter to me what the president thinks about it, or what any party thinks about it,” the governor added. “I always try to do what’s best for the people of California.”

In Illinois, the $5 million would come out of the administrative budget in the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, and would be added to $10 million in grants awarded in April to hospitals and universities. A five-year, $100 million investment that Mr. Blagojevich pushed has been stalled in the Legislature.

Mr. Blagojevich, who was vacationing in Michigan when the new money was announced via a news release, declined an interview request, through a spokeswoman, Abby Ottenhoff.

“It was after the veto that the governor determined there were no more options,” Ms. Ottenhoff said. “This research is too important to put on hold until there is a new leader in the White House.”

Even with the limitations on federal financing, the overall financing available for stem cell research could be described as fairly robust, given that the research is still at a basic stage and that in addition to state money, philanthropies like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have made contributions. Moreover, in the private sector, biotech companies like Geron, Advanced Cell Technology and Athersys conduct research on embryonic or adult stem cells.

While stem cell scientists applauded the states’ efforts, they cautioned that such an approach was not ideal.

“In the long term, I don’t think it’s a good idea to have individual states trying to mount efforts which are going to be more piecemeal, less effective and take more time than a federal effort,” said Douglas A. Melton, co-director of the Stem Cell Institute at Harvard University. “I don’t think states should mount their own militias either.”

Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, director of the Institute for Regeneration Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said that the $150 million was “absolutely a boon,” but that “if you’re an investigator in another state, besides Illinois or California, I think you’d be very frustrated right now.”

Candace Coffee, a Los Angeles resident who has suffered partial blindness, paralysis and constant headaches from Devic’s disease, appeared with Governor Schwarzenegger on Friday at his news conference.

“President Bush’s veto stole my hope,” Ms. Coffee said. “But just as quickly as our hope was stolen, it was renewed.”