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Bill Boosting Stem-Cell Research to Be Signed

Science: Davis will OK measure that paves the way for government funding of the controversial work.

September 22, 2002|GREGG JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — In a symbolic challenge to Bush administration efforts to restrict stem-cell research, Gov. Gray Davis today will sign legislation aimed at positioning California at the forefront of the controversial and potentially revolutionary biomedical field, state officials said.

Senate Bill 253, by Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento), creates a review process for stem-cell research and paves the way for the state government to shift some of its millions of dollars in biomedical research funds to the emerging stem-cell field, government and private health experts said.

Scientists and representatives of California's multibillion-dollar biomedical industry say the measure is a badly needed boost for stem-cell research, which has sparked a divisive political and ethical debate nationwide.

"Stem-cell research is responsible research that could potentially save millions of lives," Davis said in a written statement. "I am determined to keep California at the forefront of medical research and scientific innovation."

Scientists, patient advocacy groups and other supporters say stem-cell research could result in revolutionary treatments for spinal cord injuries and other diseases like cancer and Parkinson's disease. Described by scientists as one of nature's most powerful tools, stem cells found in human embryos, umbilical cords and placentas have the ability to divide and become any kind of cell in the body.

Opponents, led by the Catholic Church and antiabortion groups, contend that research--which begins with the destruction of a human embryo--is tantamount to murder.

President Bush placed broad restrictions on federal funding for stem-cell research last year. Congress is deeply divided over the issue, with conservative Republicans seeking to make it a criminal offense to conduct the research or even make use of any resulting medical therapies.

Scientists and industry groups praised the Ortiz bill as groundbreaking. "Sen. Ortiz wants to send a message that we want to maintain leadership in biomedical research in California, and this does that," said David Gollaher, president and CEO of California Healthcare Institute, which represents bioscientists and the biomedical industry.

"Since it's very unlikely that Congress will be able to agree on [stem-cell and cloning] legislation, California has really taken steps in advance of what the federal government is able to do."

California is already a leader in stem-cell research. The bill Davis will sign welcomes and encourages such research. However, scientists say the scope of such research will still be hampered by the federal government's uncertainty over the issue and the Bush restrictions.

Davis' decision to sign the Ortiz bill could inject the controversy into the California gubernatorial campaign, forcing Republican challenger Bill Simon Jr. to choose between supporting his conservative base on the issue or siding with the state's economically vital biomedical and pharmaceutical industries.

The federal restrictions and uncertainty surrounding stem-cell research in the United States have scared off private investments and spurred some leading scientists to pursue their research in Britain, Israel and other countries forging ahead in the field.

SB 253 is aimed at halting any brain-drain from California, said Ortiz. The Sacramento Democrat said she was inspired to introduce her bill by the mounting human and financial costs of killer diseases that could be conquered through stem-cell research. "I had been looking at stem-cell research when the Bush administration proposed limiting research on a federal level by an executive order," she said in a telephone interview. "I was struck by the lack of a scientific basis for that decision."

Her bill is aimed at putting in place a regulatory framework to encourage stem-cell research and the associated cloning to produce new cells, she said.

"This is the next frontier of saving lives and improving the quality of lives, not just for persons with these diseases and injuries, but also for their families dealing with these diseases and injuries," said Ortiz.

Noting the strong opposition from the Catholic Church and other opponents who equate the research with abortion, Ortiz applauded Davis for signing the proposal.

The potential stakes are enormous, scientists say. "At this time, there are a host of diseases that don't have any promise of cure in our lifetime or even our children's lifetime, without exploring embryonic stem cells," said Gollaher. "This is noncontroversial in the world of science."

Paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve--a leading advocate of stem-cell research--is scheduled to join Davis today in a conference call following the bill signing, administration officials said.

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