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Stem-cell support from Schwarzenegger could shake Wisconsin leadership

Wisconsin’s head start in stem-cell research could be challenged by the intervention of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In opposition to the policies of the Bush administration, whose campaign he supports, Schwarzenegger announced on Monday that he will be giving his support to Proposition 71, a California initiative on the November 2 ballot. This measure would authorize in California the sale of $3 billion in bonds, and lay the framework for the creation of a state institute which would supply embryonic-stem-cell researchers with grants.

Stem cells are cells without specific purposes that can transform into other parts of the human body, helping to rebuild damaged systems. They are thought to hold the potential for curing degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Federal research funding has been limited because of ethical concerns over the fact that a main source for the cells is human embryos from fertility clinics. Stem cells taken from adults have not shown the same potential.

“I am a supporter of stem cell research. ... Research that we do now holds the promise of cures for tomorrow,” Schwarzenegger said in a press release on Monday. “The creativity and resources are right here in California .... we are the world’s biotech leader.”
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Schwarzenegger’s support gives additional strength to a groundbreaking amount of money in the stem cell field. If the proposition passes California will be the state with the largest funding for biotech research, possibly pushing states like Wisconsin into the background.

“It increases the chances that Proposition 71 will pass, and it raises California’s profile as a leader in biotechnology,” said Robin Alta Charo, a professor of medical ethics at UW-Madison and a member of the university’s Bioethics Advisory Committee. “The California initiative dwarfs anything before it ... it leaves Wisconsin at a significant disadvantage.”

Wisconsin’s base and the potential to fall apart


Wisconsin has long had an advantage in the stem cell field. In 1998 James Thomson, then a UW-Madison assistant professor of anatomy, became the first researcher to isolate embryonic human stem cells, allowing them to be modified for experimentation. Thomson was later given tenure.

However, historical success may not be as enticing to a researcher as the potential to receive full funding, and this is what California could soon be in a place to provide. If Proposition 71 passes, it will provide a magnet to scientists who want to move into the field, drawing away the Midwest’s more talented researchers and making it harder for the groundbreaking discoveries to happen outside of California.

“We’re at the risk of having our research base eroded ... having our aces hired away,” Charo said.

Wisconsin has not been operating broke on the issue however, as Governor Jim Doyle is a vocal supporter of continuing the research. According to spokesperson Melanie Fondor, Doyle has made significant financial strides to support stem-cell research, raising almost half a billion dollars through programs such as BioStar and HealthStar. He has also asked President Bush to open up federal funding in stem cells beyond the limits the president imposed in 2001 — a move which is seen as critical to open up the floodgates.

However, despite considerable support, Wisconsin is still in no state to match the size of Proposition 71. “I can’t presume for a minute that the state government is prepared to give up $3 billion,” said Jim Leonhart, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Biotechnology and Medical Device Association. “In California, the state government is going to step up ... that’s the challenge here.”

Shaking off the stupor


To step up to this challenge, Charo proposed that it is time for the state to resolve the “political paralysis” that has kept the research back. Over the years there has been a great deal of fighting on the part of stem cell supporters against the state legislature and federal regulations that keeps things from getting done, often pushing the issues into limbo.

Charo said that steps can be taken to counter this by moving beyond politics. An increased culture in the biotech industry, characterized by business and journalistic support, can help to stir up awareness and get the issues moving, she said. University classes and programs that revolve around the subject — such as UW-Madison’s master’s degree in biotechnology — could also help sharpen the focus.

Much of the work done on stem cells is long-term, and results might not be evident for years. When a disease such as Alzheimer’s requires years of research to turn up a cure, some say it is not worth the effort.

Leonhart disagreed, saying people need to stay focused the potential. “There’s been some discussion about how it may not be immediate .... [but] the fact that it may not be immediate should not slow down our zeal for progress,” he said.

Charo said the problem of losing ground to California is one that is facing all states concerned with the industry, but emphasized that Wisconsin has a stronger position to fight from. However, if Proposition 71 passes there will still be a fight.

“I think we’ve got a better chance than most, but we’ll be struggling uphill,” Charo said. “We don’t have any mountains in Wisconsin, but we’re about to have a big one.”

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Les Chappell is a staff writer for WTN and can be contacted at les@wistechnology.com.

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