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Stem Cell Initiative Attracts Backers

Almost $11 million has been raised by proponents of Proposition 71; foes collect only $75,000.

August 31, 2004|Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writer

The campaign for a ballot initiative that would provide $3 billion in state money for research into embryonic stem cells has reported more than $10.7 million in contributions, giving it a large financial edge over opponents.

The opposition to the initiative, Proposition 71, has reported $75,000.

The case for spending billions on stem cell research will be made throughout the fall with a "very aggressive paid media campaign including television, radio and mail," said Fiona Hutton, a spokeswoman for the Yes on 71 campaign

With far less money in the bank, those working against the measure said their side will focus on getting its message across through news coverage, talk radio and other means that do not involve paid advertising.

"This is one that's not going to be bought and paid for by the side that can buy the most paid TV ads," said Wayne Johnson, a Republican consultant who is helping coordinate the campaign against Proposition 71.

Many donors favoring the initiative have family members who suffer from diseases they believe stem cell research could help cure. Other donors include venture capitalists and people with ties to the technology and biotechnology industries.

In August, the initiative's backers raised more than $2.1 million, including a $400,000 donation from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, $100,000 from Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) and more than $51,000 from Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad.

In addition, EBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pamela, have donated more than $1 million. The Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, based in New York, has donated $1 million. So too did John and Ann Doerr, generous donors to Democratic party causes. John Doerr is a venture capitalist and investor in Google.

Much of the seed money for the proposition came from Robert Klein II, a Fresno real estate developer who has given more than $1.5 million. His son has juvenile diabetes and his father suffers from Alzheimer's disease.

For many who have given money to help pass the initiative, the potential promise of stem cell research is deeply emotional.

Jackie Scandalios of Atherton, Calif., said she tracked down Proposition 71 organizers earlier this year to donate $100.

"We have a daughter who is very ill with lupus," said Scandalios. "It seems [this research] may probably be a last resort."

Scandalios compared the potential for stem cell research to the Salk vaccine -- which transformed polio from a dreaded disease into one that has been virtually eradicated in most nations.

Johnson said he understands that many donors "are willing to grasp at anything that offers hope. People who have resources travel the world looking for any treatment they can find." But he said he believes their faith in stem cell research is misplaced.

The largest donation to the anti-Proposition 71 committee, which is called Doctors, Patients and Taxpayers for Fiscal Responsibility, was $50,000 from Fieldstead and Co. in Irvine, owned by Howard Ahmanson Jr. Ahmanson is a philanthropist who has a long history of backing conservative causes.

On a California ballot crowded with propositions for voters to consider, the question of whether to fund stem cell research is likely to be among the most divisive and closely watched.

Proposition 71 calls for the state to bankroll research currently ineligible for federal money under a decision made by President Bush in 2001. Bush allowed federal dollars to be used for embryonic stem cell research but he limited funding to groups of cells, known as cell lines, that were already in existence at the time of his decision. Advocates and researchers argued that the existing embryonic stem cell lines were insufficient.

Stem cells from embryos can copy themselves indefinitely and become every type of cell in the human body. By studying how such cells work, scientists believe they can better understand disease.

Advocates of the research say that embryonic stem cells potentially could be used to create new insulin-producing cells in the bodies of people with diabetes. Others hope stem cells could be used to regrow nerve cells in people paralyzed by accidents or cure Alzheimer's disease. Researchers stress that their work is still very preliminary and far from producing cures.

Stem cells are also found in umbilical cord blood and some adult tissues. But researchers disagree about whether those stem cells have as much potential as the ones found in embryos.

Supporters of research using embryonic stem cells say the cells can be taken from embryos created for in vitro fertilization but not used. Such embryos could be donated by the individuals whose eggs and sperm were used to create them.

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