Stem Cell Initiative: A Boost for Research and Silicon Valley

By Chris Nolan  |  Posted 2004-07-22

Stem Cell Initiative: A Boost for Research and 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.

For the latest news, views and analysis of technologys impact on health care, check out eWEEK.coms Health Care Center.

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.

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Adding to the mix: Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry has endorsed a relaxation of the federal governments stem cell research policy, which could be reversed by an order from the president. And many of those supporting Prop 71 in Silicon Valley have also been big Democratic party supporters.

All this politicking raises the measures profile, says spokesman Roger Salazar. "It just underscores the importance of getting a revenue stream for this research," he says. "This takes it out of the political arena," by making sure researchers have the funds to do the work they need.

But high-minded research isnt all thats at work here. Prop 71 is a jobs bill for the state. Proponents say it will return $700 million to the state in the first five years, and Silicon Valley is in good shape to be one of the focal points of that spending. Near three universities, the San Francisco Bay area has a good shot at being the research institutes home base. Biotech is an increasing part of Silicon Valleys economy. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom recognized as much when he included a tax break for biotech firms in his recent city budget, hoping to encourage firms funded in Silicon Valley to locate in the city.

So its not surprising that venture capitalists up and down the valley, many of them funders and founders of some of the better-known biotech firms, have ponied up. USA Today has reported that the initiative has raised almost $2 million from the valley. All told, the effort has $5.3 million to spend to assure passage. "Its going to have tremendous impact on the biotech sector, Salazar said. Technology and Politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. You can read her musings on politics and technology every day in her Politics from Left to Right Weblog.

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