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Referendum may pull California to the forefront of stem cell research

Brain cells grown from human embryonic stem cells in a UW-Madison lab. Photo courtesy Professor Su-Chun Zhang.
MADISON, Wis.—A proposition on California's ballot this November may affect Wisconsin's leadership in the field of embryonic stem cell research, experts say. If passed, the Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative, or Proposition 71, will provide $3 billion in tax-free state bonds over 10 years for embryonic stem cell research—placing the Golden State at the forefront of stem cell funding.

According to a recent Field Poll, 45 percent of surveyed voters in California support the referendum and 42 percent oppose it.

Faced with California's proposed financial incentives, some fear Wisconsin may lose its leadership position gained in 1998 when James Thomson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, first isolated human embryonic stem cell lines.

State Rep. Sheldon Wasserman, D-Milwaukee, the only physician in the Wisconsin Legislature and a proponent of embryonic stem cell research, feels Proposition 71's towering monetary incentives will lure scientists to the West Coast.

Developmental biologist James Thomson in his Primate Research Center lab. Photo by Jeff Miller.
“It sends a very dangerous message to some of the greatest stem cell researchers in the country that Wisconsin can't provide for you as well as California can. The greener pastures are out west,” Wasserman said. “This is not the message we want. We want to keep people like James Thomson in Wisconsin and bring other researchers into stem cells. … It's a very worrisome development.”
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Dr. Clive Svendsen, professor of anatomy and neurology at the Waisman Center, works with stem cells and also believes California's ballot measure will draw researchers to the coast. The Waisman Center is one of UW-Madison's research facilities.

“If they do come out with those types of state funds, other states will have to compete in a way and have their own referendums,” Svendsen said.

But can Wisconsin produce a proposition similar to California's? According to Wasserman, the answer is “No,” because California, like many other Western states, allows its citizens to petition for ballot propositions—completely bypassing the legislature. These grassroots referendums, if passed, become state laws. Such a system does not exist in Wisconsin.

“I think California is being very bright—they're putting their money where their mouth is,” Wasserman said. “If they come up with cures for diseases, Wisconsinites will be flocking to California for those cures. Plus, the profit on their investment will be astronomical.”

Despite potential fiscal temptation, Svendsen said that it would take a lot for him and other prominent stem cell researchers like Thomson to leave Wisconsin.

“California can throw all the money they want, but they need the people,” Svendsen said. He cited collaboration between UW-Madison and the university's technology-transfer agency, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, as part of a valuable research network. “It would be nice to get more state support and I know Gov. Doyle is very positive about stem cell research. I feel secure in Wisconsin.”

Despite this security, Svendsen touched upon the seemingly ever-present legislative threat to his research, as the Wisconsin Legislature has attempted to restrict or ban embryonic stem cell research every year since the 1999-2000 session.

Earlier this month at a news conference, Doyle said Wisconsin probably sustained job loss because of President Bush's 2001 federal funding restrictions on stem cell research. Government money is often the primary source of funding for university researchers and those wishing to tap this source for embryonic stem cell research are limited to the 78 cell lines that existed prior to Bush's statement. However, since 2001, defects have made all but 21 lines unsuitable for scientists. Five of the 21 are owned by WiCell, a non-profit subsidiary of WARF.

“We've made great investments in Wisconsin, like with BioStar Initiative, and we will continue to work for other opportunities to build on that and we want Wisconsin to be a leader in this very important research,” said Melanie Fonder, Doyle's press secretary, in response to California's initiative. BioStar, a $317 million public-private partnership, is an ongoing project to build new labs and buildings to attract and retain scientists.

Svendsen, who came to the Waisman Center from the University of Cambridge, said the United States lacks stem cell regulations compared to other countries, including England.

“Technically, I think America is way ahead of the world—we don't have any laws; companies are doing what they want,” Svendsen said. “It's still the Wild West. If you have money, you can grow your own [stem cell lines]." He believes that ethical boundaries must be put in place through central, federal legislation.

The NIH is the most significant source of government funding for many types of science, including embryonic stem cell research. According to James Leonhart, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Biotechnology and Medical Device Association, the NIH has $20 billion available for science but only $25 million has been allotted to embryonic stem cell research by the Bush administration.

“We think that federal support is still essential for this research to continue,” Leonhart said. He feels that while the NIH's support is a step forward, the overall restriction of federal funding will eventually result in the United States losing scientific ground to other countries. He also warned that if Wisconsin develops a reputation for not supporting stem cell research, it could negatively affect other areas of science because private investors will begin to look elsewhere.

“It's a natural consequence. If research is not encouraged, people generalize and say `Well, Wisconsin is not in favor of front-line research,'” Leonhart said.

While privately funded researchers face fewer restrictions, the Food and Drug Administration does regulate the products companies develop from basic stem cell research that was probably conducted within university settings, said Andy Cohn, spokesman for WARF.

“I think clearly everyone will benefit by that initiative passing,” Cohn said. “I hope it will wake up this state to the competition that's out there and the state Legislature will recognize that we are in a very competitive area that has economic consequences for the state as well as the health of our citizens.”

Wisconsin will have to wait till November to know the fate of Proposition 71, but even now some see California's initiative as a threat to Wisconsin's leadership -- and perhaps something Wisconsin should imitate.

“We have the best scientists in the world in this area and a head start. I would hope that we should do what is necessary to keep the ones we have [and] get new ones. California will be very active looking for the best scientists,” Cohn said.

Related WTN stories:


Gov. Doyle comments on unlocking the power of power of stem cell research

Stem Cells Illuminate Early Stages of Human Development

Lifting federal limits on stem cell research would speed search for cures

UW Madison launches new stem cell research program

Making the most of stem cells

How Wisconsin Can Maintain Its Lead in Stem Cell Research

On location: BIO 2004

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