Renewed Federal Funding for Stem Cell Studies Could Make Cash-Strapped States Think Twice About Spending Their Own Money

In his budget proposal, Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed giving more funds to the biotech sector.
In his budget proposal, Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed giving more funds to the biotech sector. (By Jacquelyn Martin -- Associated Press)
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By John Wagner and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

President Obama's decision to lift restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is certain to rekindle debate in Maryland and a number of other states that moved to pay for the controversial science after the Bush administration's limitation order but are now facing large budget gaps.

To try to keep Maryland's vibrant biotechnology sector competitive, state lawmakers have approved $56 million in grants to university and private-sector researchers over the past three years. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) included an additional $18.4 million in his budget proposal for next year, even as numerous other state programs were cut to close a potential $2 billion shortfall.

With Obama's announcement, the legislators, who must act on O'Malley's proposal in coming weeks, were looking anew at whether the state's program is sustainable. Funding has already slowed for similar programs in New Jersey and California.

"I think the combination of President Obama's decision and our state budget crisis will put pressure on us to reduce" funding, said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee, who added that he supports the aims of the research. "It becomes an inviting target because there is now another potential source of funding outside the state."

But advocates of the research cautioned against moving too quickly to reduce state money, suggesting that it could be some time before federal dollars become available for embryonic stem cell research, given remaining bureaucratic and legislative hurdles.

"In these economic times, I think it's a reasonable question to raise," said Karen Rothenberg, head of the Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission, which awards grants. "But I think it would be premature to pull the momentum and signal to the research community that Maryland is going to walk away from this investment."

Eight states -- California, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York -- have passed programs authorizing spending on embryonic stem cell research since 2001, when President George W. Bush announced that he was limiting federal funding to what turned out to be 21 stem cell lines already in existence at that point. The decision reflected opposition to using taxpayer money in research that involves the destruction of days-old human embryos as a result of extracting the stem cells.

Even critics acknowledge that interest in Maryland's program -- which also funds other, less controversial types of stem cell research -- has been strong. During fiscal 2008, the program received 122 applications for funding, of which 58 were approved, including research related to prostate cancer, breast cancer, brain cancer, cartilage repair and liver regeneration.

For the current fiscal year, 147 applications, a higher number, were received, but grants have not yet been awarded.

Researchers said states such as Maryland that have offered state funding have enabled researchers to make significant strides.

Johns Hopkins has been able to purchase equipment and attract top talent in the field, said Valina Dawson, professor of neurology, neuroscience and physiology at the university's School of Medicine. "Maryland money has allowed us to move in new directions that we would not have been able to," she said.

At the University of Maryland's Biotechnology Institute, state funds are enabling researchers to collaborate with counterparts in Germany, said W. Jonathan Lederer, professor and director of the institute's Medical Biotechnology Center.

This year in New Jersey, which in early 2004 became one of the first states to fund embryonic stem cell research, Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) cut funding by 75 percent as he worked to close a $3.6 billion budget gap.

Today, Corzine will unveil his fiscal 2010 budget, grappling with a projected $7 billion shortfall. Discussions continue about eliminating the funding altogether for the coming year, said Martin Grumet, director of the Rutgers Stem Cell Research Center, which this summer will spend the last of a two-year, $3 million state grant that was used to create three lines of human stem cells.

Even the program in California, where voters in 2004 approved a behemoth program funded by $3 billion in bond sales, has been slowed by state budget problems.

Alan Trounson, president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which administers the program, said fighting between the state legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) slowed the state's ability to sell bonds. He said the institute now expects to raise $200 million to support the research this year, instead of a planned $300 million.

Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said it is important that the state maintain its commitment to multiyear research projects that are already receiving state funding. But Busch said it is possible that state funds will be "weaned" in coming years, particularly if the federal efforts prove robust.

And efforts by some of colleagues to cut funding could come sooner than that, he acknowledged. The state is scheduled to get updated tax revenue projections tomorrow, which will probably prompt additional cuts to the governor's proposed budget. Legislative analysts have cautioned that the revenue reduction could far exceed $500 million.

"Depending on what the revenue estimates are like, people are going to be questioning everything," Busch said.

House and Senate budget writers differed yesterday on whether stem cell funding in next year's budget would be significantly reduced. House members said they expect to continue the investment, while senators said the money could be vulnerable.

"I would personally hope we don't do that," Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) said of possible cuts to state funding as federal dollars come into play.

Staff writer Lori Aratani contributed to this report.

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