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Stem Cell Showdown Looms in Annapolis

Scientists say 22 colonies, called "lines," fitting that description are available. Money from universities, charities or private donors can pay for research on other cell lines, but some scientists say the lack of federal support is slowing research.

That sentiment prompted a successful ballot initiative in California in the fall that authorized as much as $3 billion over the next decade to pay for research on "non-qualifying" stem lines in the state -- a commitment that dwarfs the federal funding of recent years. The measure drew the backing of California's Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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Stem Cell Research
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Full Report

Since then, a similar initiative has been launched in Florida, with hopes of securing passage in 2006. Several other states -- including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Wisconsin -- have also dedicated state money to stem cell research or are considering doing so.

Virginia's legislature is considering a far more modest initiative, a $1 million state fund, but it could face opposition in the conservative House of Delegates.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), the chief sponsor of the Maryland stem cell bill in the House, said, "California has clearly changed the equation in terms of maintaining our leadership as a biotechnology state, and money talks." The $25 million a year in his bill "is comparable, given our size and research capacity, to what California has done," he said.

Maryland is home to two major research universities that engage in stem cell research, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland at Baltimore, as well as more than 300 biotech companies, a small number of which are also involved in stem cell research.

With the exception of Hopkins, a pioneer in the field, most of that research involves adult stem cells, which are derived from bone marrow, blood, skin and other sources less controversial than embryos. Many scientists believe that embryonic stem cells hold more promise, however, because they have the capacity to develop into many types of tissues.

Dr. Curt I. Civin, a professor at Johns Hopkins, said state money would enable university-based and private-sector researchers using adult stem cells to expand their work to include embryonic cells.

"It's an easy jump, conceptually," Civin said. "You haven't seen the wave hitting the shore on this yet."

The legislation that will be introduced tomorrow leaves it to a commission to decide how to award the $25 million in grants to further such research. Researchers from public and private institutions would be eligible, with a priority given to proposals not eligible for federal money.

Although the dollar level is relatively modest compared with California, "it will signal that Maryland is open for business," said Barry S. Handwerger, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who has Parkinson's disease. "There's so much potential, not exploring it is almost criminal."

The money initially would be taken from funds flowing to Maryland as part of a national settlement with the major tobacco companies. Annual payments of $30 million that the state has been making to the law firm of Peter G. Angelos for representation in the case are scheduled to end after next year, freeing up the money, Hollinger said.

The legislation explicitly bans human cloning in Maryland, a point supporters are emphasizing as they lobby wavering lawmakers.

If the state failed to act, Civin said, it would risk losing its researchers to California and other states. Some Hopkins researchers have begun receiving such offers, he said. The state would also find it more difficult to attract new biotech companies specializing in stem cell research, Civin predicted.

One researcher considering relocating to California is Richard Garr, president and chief executive of NeuralStem, a small private company in Gaithersburg, part of Montgomery County's Interstate 270 biotech corridor.

Much of the seven-year-old company's work focuses on treating brain and spinal cord injuries using progenitor cells derived from aborted fetuses that share many of the same properties as stem cells.

Garr said access to state money could be "an extremely valuable and important thing" in persuading him to stay.

Opponents of the legislation appear to have their best shot at blocking it in the 47-member Senate, where Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) is working to enlist Republicans and antiabortion Democrats to engage in a filibuster.

Harris, the minority whip and the chamber's only doctor, said the bill "crosses the ethical divide" in his view. Moreover, Harris said, "it makes no sense for Maryland to get in the business of funding this research. For states to delve into this is very much beyond the role of state government."

It's also an issue that could force some tough votes for some of his chamber's more culturally conservative Democrats, who hail from districts where the vote could be used against them come election time.

"It's a very difficult issue," said Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr. (D-Anne Arundel). "You're looking at a lot of things that could be helped, but I'm on the side of preserving life."

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