Spitzer willing to bet on research

Published: February 4, 2007  |  Source: syracuse.com
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Lt. Gov. Paterson takes the lead in persuading voters on a bond issue in 2008.

About one-third of the women who come to the CNY Fertility Center in Syracuse for in-vitro fertilization wind up with embryos to spare.

If they are done having babies, they have to make a choice: Do they offer them to another couple? Do they throw them out? Do they take them home and bury them? Or do they donate the unused embryos to a scientist in California to use to try to invent new cures for Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, diabetes or arthritis?

Most people ask Dr. Robert Kiltz to lift the frozen embryos out of their liquid nitrogen storage unit and drop them in the medical waste.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Lt. Gov. David Paterson think they could be put to better use: to cure diseases and to draw jobs in science and manufacturing to New York.

They have proposed the state invest billions of dollars in taxpayer money in stem cell research.

Spitzer and Paterson have asked state legislators to invest $100 million in this year’s budget and another $50 million every year for the next 10 years in scientific discoveries and commercial applications related mostly to stem cell science. Then, they hope to ask voters on the November 2008 ballot to approve a $1.5 billion bond issue for the cause.

Paterson will be the point man.

It is a significant job and a new role for the second-in-command.

As he puts it, the job of lieutenant governor has involved making a phone call early each morning to see if the governor is at work, then heading back to bed when he answers the phone.

Paterson says he knows the venture carries risks: If it invests billions of public dollars in something that produces no tangible results, the Spitzer administration will have a tough time getting the voters’ permission to do anything else.

At the same time, Paterson said he proceeds with caution when he talks about his hope for cures.

“I try not to oversell the possibilities of cures for people who, like myself, suffer from disabling diseases and not to give them any false hope,” he said.

Paterson is legally blind as a result of optic Atrophy or scar tissue between the retina and the optic nerve. He says he does not plan on personally benefiting from stem cell research. But he said his blindness has given him experience; and overcoming the Disability has put him in the political position to be an advocate for science.

“A number of places I go, people will tell me, ‘We’re counting on you to make this happen,’ ” he said. “Not just the people who have disabilities, but often family members, often just citizens, fully sighted, fully hearing, fully able, but concerned about others.”

A public authority sought

Here’s how it would work:

The state would create the Stem Cell and Innovation Fund Corp., a public authority. The fund would be governed by a 15-member board of directors, which would have a chairperson named by the governor. The board would count on policy advice from experts, possibly including some from outside the state, Paterson said.

He said the administration would not count on political advisers.

Paterson said it is likely the state will not be able to give voters a list of projects that would be financed before they are asked to vote. He said that is because they want ideas to compete for the money.

No more than 5 percent of funds may be used for any single grant or loan.

The vague nature of last week’s announcement made skeptics out of conservative fiscal watchdogs like E.J. McMahon, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

“It’s a slogan without a detailed program behind it,” McMahon said.

In past years, voters have balked at ballot issues that give the state permission to spend huge sums of money on projects to be named later, he said.

When former Gov. George Pataki wanted voters to approve a $2.9 billion bond act for transportation in 2005, he made a detailed list of projects. Upstate New Yorkers still voted against it, but it passed with support from Downstate.

Spitzer and Paterson are also up against anti-abortion groups that do not approve of conducting research on embryos.

The New York State Catholic Conference is already mobilizing with other pro-life groups to oppose the bond issue, spokeswoman Kathleen Gallagher said.

“We believe it is irresponsible to spend this money, billions of dollars, on science that many taxpayers believe is unethical,” she said.

She said New York state should not be squandering taxpayer money on highly speculative science at a time when basic health care is lacking, she said.

The “c-word” – cloning – will be at the center of this debate.

Catholics believe the reproduction of stem cells is cloning.

Embryonic stem cell advocates say it is not the same kind of cloning that most people think of when they think of Dolly the sheep, for example. Scientists call it “therapeutic” cloning, which means they use it only to clone cells and tissues, not to reproduce a person.

Spitzer put a bill into his budget proposal that would ban reproductive cloning.

Cells from an embryo

There is a chart on the wall at CNY Fertility Center that shows the first five days of development from egg to embryo for in-vitro fertilization.

On day five, the fertilized egg has grown into a “blastocyst,” an embryo made of hundreds of cells. There is a visible blob in the cell called the “inner cell mass.”

Those are the cells scientists extract for stem cell research. They can develop into many different types of cells in the body and can be engineered to use for transplant or treatment of disease, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Those are also the cells that can become a fetus.

The ethical question is whether or not that inner cell mass is a life form or simply a cluster of cells.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that an embryo is a human life and that sacrificing it for science is killing it. Pope John Paul II urged President Bush in 2001 to reject embryonic stem cell research as a practice on par with abortion and euthanasia.

CNY Fertility Center embryologist Lareina Restive has learned how difficult it is for an embryo to become a baby. She sees the embryo at that stage as a cluster of cells that has some potential to become a pregnancy. Very few embryos make it, she said inside the doctor’s office, where about a half-dozen women waited in the lobby Friday morning.

“To do what I do, you can’t believe that life begins at conception,” she said. “They’re just cellular processes.”

There is not as much controversy over another kind of stem cell research, which involves stem cells harvested from adult human stem cells and from the placenta and umbilical cord blood of newborns.

These adult human stem cells are the only kinds now used to treat diseases. They have been in use for more than 40 years, according to the NIH.

This is the kind of research Pataki promoted last fall when he announced $10 million for an umbilical cord blood bank in Syracuse. That money has already been committed.

The effort is separate from Spitzer’s proposal.

Scientists are fighting to move beyond adult stem cells into embryonic stem cells for several reasons. They say adult stem cells cannot be reproduced in the same way and adult stem cells have been exposed to sunlight and other toxins, according to the NIH.

100,000 jobs forecast

Before Spitzer’s plan gets to the ballot, state legislators will have to approve it.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, the most likely opponent, said last week that he would not immediately object.

“We’re going to be open to explore whatever’s in the public’s best interest,” Bruno said. “I don’t know the nuance of what would be in there. We think stem cell research is critically important.”

The potential for jobs could help win over Upstate legislators, who tend to be Republican and more conservative.

Paterson said he is not talking about jobs just to bring them on board, but he thinks the initiative could create 100,000 jobs.

In 2001, President Bush limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to stem cell lines that had already been created.

States jumped in to fill the national void.

States like California and Massachusetts agreed to invest state money in new stem cell research. When patients at CNY Fertility Center decide to donate their embryos to science, . Kiltz said he ships them to California and, previously, to Boston.

At the other end of the spectrum, South Dakota passed a law that forbids research on embryos.

Support from a state poll

A majority of New Yorkers said they support embryonic stem cell research and think that the state should pay for it, according to a 2006 Zogby International poll funded by research advocates.

The poll found that 69 percent of New Yorkers, including 58 percent of Republicans, 59 percent Upstate, 69 percent of Catholics and 60 percent of Protestants favor state funding.

All New Yorkers could be asked to make a choice next year.

Spitzer and Paterson could have borrowed this money without voter approval by having state public authorities issue the bonds. That’s how Pataki paid for economic development initiatives.

But Paterson said he hates that kind of borrowing. It was used as a way to get around the state constitution, which allows one ballot issue each year for the state to ask voters for permission to go into debt.

“We are going to do it the old-fashioned way and let the public vote on it,” Paterson said.

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.By Michelle Breidenbach Staff writer
Copyright 2007 syracuse.com. All Rights Reserved.