By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 22, 2007
Tuesday's announcement that scientists had found a noncontroversial way to make cells equivalent to human embryonic stem cells did not just change the scientific and ethical landscape. It generated economic and geopolitical tremors through California, New York and about half a dozen other states that have invested -- in some cases heavily -- in embryonic stem cell programs and research centers.
States have together committed billions of dollars to fill the research vacuum left by the Bush administration, which in 2001 declared embryonic stem cell research largely off-limits for federal funding. Their hope has been to attract the best scientists and build research infrastructures, giving them a leg up on efforts to develop promising new stem cell therapies and assuring them futures as biomedical and economic powerhouses.
The possibility that embryonic stem cells will be eclipsed by "ips" cells -- or "induced pluripotent stem cells," "pluripotent" meaning "able to become virtually every kind of" -- which can be created with relative ease and with abundant funding from the National Institutes of Health, could undermine those state-level ambitions and bring an early end to a novel experiment in scientific federalism, experts said.
It could also streamline progress and make it easier for scientists to collaborate across state lines: something that had become increasingly difficult as individual states created their own legal and ethical ground rules for embryo cell research.
"If the field turns more attention to ips cells under the umbrella of federal oversight, we may once again become the United States of Science as opposed to the Confederate States of Science," said R. Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
California has the biggest statewide stake in embryonic stem cell research, with an aggressive commitment to spend $3 billion over 10 years to support facilities and studies. Already that pot of money has attracted scientific hotshots from other parts of the United States and abroad.
Richard A. Murphy, interim director of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which oversees the state program, said he does not feel threatened by ips cells.
"We think there is still a lot to learn from embryonic stem cells that will help us exploit this terrific new finding," Murphy said, noting that California's money can be spent on any work that may speed the development of any stem cell therapy, including from ips cells.
"I can assure you," Murphy said, "there are going to be two parallel tracks of research here."
Joshua Trojak, acting executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology, which administers that state's $45 million stem cell grants program, also focused on the positive.
"We are committed to remaining on the forefront of stem cell research," he said.
But Trojak and others conceded that the effort by states to fill the shoes usually worn by the federal government has been difficult.
Each state has had to develop ground rules for embryonic stem cell research that spell out, for example, whether women may be paid for donating their eggs, who is eligible to apply for patents, and whether money may be shared with researchers in other states. That has created what Charo called a patchwork of "ethics islands."
"It has been a little difficult for cross-state collaborative research," Trojak acknowledged. "There have been some hiccups."
New Jersey has suffered other setbacks. Earlier this year, voters rejected a measure that had earmarked $450 million in bonds for stem cell research. That forced Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) to scale back his hopes for the state program, and it reminded supporters that for all the budget fights in Congress, NIH's priorities are at least not subject to the whims of a fickle public.
The NIH provides about $560 million a year for non-embryonic stem cell research, said the agency's director, Elias A. Zerhouni, noting that work on ips cells is eligible for such funding and that more money could be made available if enough high-quality applications arrive.
"There is no funding cap," Zerhouni said. "The only limit is the quality of the science."
That kind of money could be a major democratizing force for an area of research that, until now, has been dominated by the few states that stuck their necks out by passing initiatives. In addition to California and New Jersey, that includes New York (which has earmarked about $600 million), Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Maryland, Illinois and Indiana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Now, states that lacked either the tax revenue or political desire to explore embryonic stem cells have an opportunity to become leaders in one of the hottest fields in biomedical science, said Jonathan Moreno, a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, who tracks the field.
"I can imagine in a place like Texas or maybe Virginia there will be legislators who will say, 'Now we can really get into this,' " Moreno said.
The experiment with state-level programs has not been without merit, some policymakers and others said. In addition to providing support for embryonic stem cell research during a federal funding drought, such programs have served as important proving grounds for various approaches to regulating controversial areas of science.
But they have also suffered from having to duplicate many of the tasks that could otherwise be done just once, said Thomas Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank in Garrison, N.Y.
"The main challenge facing stem cell federalism is how to assure that the best research gets funded," Murray said. "That requires a highly sophisticated operation for judging the relative merits of stem cell proposals. And for every state to have to replicate that is an arduous task."