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Stem cells and California

Now that Obama has opened up the research, federal funds for work in California would be a wise move.

March 10, 2009

Later this year, a handful of people who have suffered severe spinal injuries will receive injections of nerve cells -- a procedure that allowed paralyzed rats to walk again -- in the first clinical trial of a therapy involving embryonic stem cells. These are the kinds of hope-inspiring studies we can expect to see more of now that President Obama has expanded the use of federal funding for stem cell research.

For years, scientists chafed under the Bush administration's restrictions on such research, work that might lead to treatments for a range of ailments, including diabetes and Alzheimer's. President Bush allowed only the 60 or so stem cell lines developed before August 2001 to qualify for funding by the National Institutes of Health, and those lines were found to be tainted.

The executive order that Obama signed Monday will open the door to studies on hundreds of newer and more useful stem cell lines. Of the $1 billion in federal money spent each year on stem cell research, only about $50 million involves human embryonic stem cells. But as previous grants expire, hundreds of millions of dollars should become available for these studies.

Stem cell research is a long-term endeavor that should not be subject to the whims of successive administrations. Federal legislation is needed to secure the future of such research -- legislation that passed Congress twice but was vetoed by Bush. And Obama should have called on Congress to repeal the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, 13-year-old legislation that prohibited the use of federal funding to create new stem cell lines because that involves the destruction of embryos. Of the 400,000 frozen embryos -- microscopic clusters of a few dozen cells -- now stored in fertility clinics, about 8,000 are slated to be destroyed anyway.

It's legal to create new lines with private money and to provide federal grants for research on those lines. This makes for contradictory policy: The federal government helps generate a market for new stem cell lines while regarding their creation as anathema.

Californians rejected such thinking in 2004 by passing Proposition 71, which will spend $3 billion over a decade on embryonic stem cell research, including the creation of new lines. The presidential order is already a boon to California's initiative; now researchers can use federally funded labs and equipment for their state-funded research, instead of being forced to duplicate facilities. It would be a mistake, though, for the NIH to concentrate newly freed funding in other states, reasoning that California has taken care of itself. The state's stem cell agency has put much of its money so far into cutting-edge facilities and grants to promising researchers. With established infrastructure and the prospect of future state funding to keep research going, there is no better place for the federal government to invest in embryonic stem cell work.

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