Voters could decide future of stem-cell plan

ALBANY — As stem cell funding continues to face political hurdles at the federal level, New York’s governor and lieutenant governor want to sell voters on spending up to $2 billion over 10 years to promote advances and economic development through stem cell research and in life sciences.

Lt. Gov. David Paterson, who is leading the campaign, said making public funds available will help scientists find cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer and diabetes.

And it will help New York compete with other states that are putting taxpayer dollars toward stem cell research, including California, Connecticut and New Jersey. Keeping up with other states will prevent losses of scientific facilities and jobs in New York, he said.

Paterson, who has been legally blind since birth, said he wants people in his situation and with other health problems eventually to have a choice for treatment. He’s no scientist, he said, but stem cells hold much promise, and he wants to help in the policy and funding areas.

“My contribution would be to try to provide for the research so that the cure for cancer and spinal cord injuries isn’t stuck in the brain of a promising research student who doesn’t have the technology,” said Paterson, a lawyer who spent 20 years in the Senate before being elected lieutenant governor last fall.

The money would come from a bond issue of up to $2 billion — as much as $1 billion of that for stem cell research — the voters would have to approve, possibly this November. The state would provide grants and loans to scientists investigating stem cells and other leading-edge medical research. The state would set up an independent commission to develop policies and hold scientists accountable to ethical and research guidelines. Out-of-state industry experts would help choose the projects funded.

Stem cell research brings with it plenty of controversy, which is centered around whether unused stem cells collected for in vitro fertilization should be available to researchers. Proponents argue that it makes sense to use the embryos rather than throw them out. Opponents, who are against abortion, say the government should not fund the destruction of human embryos.

“The bishops are gravely concerned about this because there is a heavy emphasis on embryonic stem cells and human cloning,” said Kathy Gallagher of the Catholic Conference of New York.

By cloning, she refers to a process called therapeutic cloning, in which the DNA of an unfertilized, unimplanted egg is replaced with genetic material from a donor. Disease-specific stem cell lines can be grown, with the potential for treating and curing many diseases, according to the New York Stem Cell Foundation.

Gallagher said the process for therapeutic cloning begins the same way as for human cloning. It is not appropriate or ethical to destroy human embryos for their stem cells, she said. The state should be investing in adult stem-cell research and umbilical cord blood research, and should help further a scientific discovery announced a week ago — that stem cells could be extracted from donated amniotic fluid, she said.

The New York Stem Cell Foundation disagrees. Adult stem cells have been useful and will be useful for things like bone-marrow transplants, said Susan Solomon, CEO and founder of the group.

“But the point of adult stem cells is they already have become something. If you start at the embryonic stage, they are able to form all different kinds of cells that we’re made of,” she said.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a stem cell bill this week, but not by a wide enough margin to override President George Bush’s promised veto.

In 2001, Bush announced that federally funded embryonic research could continue only with lines of stem cells that had already been developed. States can pay for research on embryonic stem cell lines that aren’t eligible for federal funding.

Still, the Spitzer-Paterson administration wants a law that preserves the legality of research on embryonic stem cell lines derived from excess embryos at in-vitro fertilization clinics. The two want the state to pass a law banning human reproductive cloning.

O-D Albany bureau

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