Stem Cell Initiative: A Boost for Research and Silicon Valley

Opinion: Not only would the passage of a California ballot initiative mean $3 billion for stem cell research but it would also mean more opportunities for Silicon Valley.

Given its scope, the amount of money thats to be raised and the election year politicking surrounding the topic, a California ballot initiative to raise $3 billion for medical stem cell research could easily become the focus point of a simmering national debate.

The initiative, informally known as Prop 71, was launched by Silicon Valley real estate executive Bob Klein, whose son has diabetes. Klein and the organization hes started, Californians for Stem Cell Research and Cures, hope to get voter approval to authorize the state to sell $3 billion in bonds over the next 10 years. Sale of the bonds would provide approximately $295 million a year for research at state universities and other research institutions working with a new organization, California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, created by the ballot initiative. The money is being raised and the institute created to compensate for a freeze on federal funding for stem cell research authorized by President Bush.

The issue is something of a hot button for conservatives who question the ethics of using stem cells, which are, more technically, human cells that have not yet differentiated to form organs, bones or tissue. Scientists believe the cells can be used to help regenerate nerve cells and other damaged organs. Stem cells can be cultivated from umbilical cord blood, but more typically they are created in laboratory settings and taken from days-old human embryos. Prop 71 would permit the creation and destruction of those sorts of cells in state labs.

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The financial size of the ballot initiative would be enough to get attention for the measure, officially known as the "The California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act." After all, Californias ballot initiatives are better known for putting the breaks on spending and taxes, not for raising money.

But its background politics that will put California and its Silicon Valley-based tech community, which has helped raise money for the measure and will see its companies and local universities benefit, in the spotlight. And it will find itself—once again—up against a very different worldview. The national debate will begin next week when Ron Reagan, son of late former President Ronald Reagan, speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Reagan has said he will limit his remarks to the importance and need for unfettered stem cell research and its role in finding cures for diseases like Alzheimers, from which his father suffered, as well as diabetes and Parkinsons disease.

Thats part of a one-two family punch. Last year before her husbands death, former first lady Nancy Reagan attended a fundraiser for stem cell research. It was a rare public appearance for Mrs. Reagan, and there has been some talk that she may help the Prop 71 effort by taping television ads to run before election day. Mrs. Reagans lobbying on behalf of relaxing the federal ban—which limits research by blocking funding—has angered some conservatives. But her political authority within the party—and with California conservatives—is considerable.

Next Page: Reversing the governments policy.