Anti-Ban Billionaires

Billionaire cash has kept embryonic stem-cell research alive–just barely.

Anti-abortion crusaders see research on embryonic stem cells as something akin to murder. Eli Broad sees it as a great way to save lives–and he is tapping his $6 billion fortune to help. Sidestepping the ban on federal funding of most stem-cell experiments imposed by President Bush five years ago, Broad, the founder of builder KB Home, gave $25 million in February to the University of Southern California to erect a stem-cell building.

More gifts may loom, he hints. Broad says he is saddened by the Bush Administration’s stem-cell ban, which has constrained funding, forced universities to set up redundant labs off-site and let Singapore, Australia and Europe pull ahead of the U.S. in one of the most exciting new fields for fighting disease. “The promise is great,” he says.

Embryonic stem cells are nascent bits of unformed genetic potential that later turn into cells that make up the brain, the heart, blood and bone and every other kind of cell in the body. One day researchers hope to turn stem cells into versatile scientific tools to repair damage at the root of Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and other maladies; the stem cells also could help develop drugs and test medicines for dangerous side effects.

But creating a stem cell requires destroying embryos when they are five-day-old balls of a hundred cells, such as fertilized eggs discarded after an in vitro fertilization. The embryo defenders say each of these microscopic balls is a human life that shouldn’t be wasted. They argue that using adult stem cells culled from patients would suffice, though many biologists disagree.

Since the ban, federal funding of embryonic stem-cell work has risen to all of $40 million a year, just one-fifth of the money for other kinds of stem cells and a pittance in the $20 billion research budget of the government’s National Institutes of Health. But Eli Broad and a few other billionaires–some of them from President Bush’s own Republican Party–and a number of states and private foundations have stepped into the gap. They have funneled three times as much as the federal government into embryonic stem-cell research.

The anti-ban donors include Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire and Republican mayor of New York; Ray Dolby, inventor of the Dolby sound system; Oraclefounder Larry Ellison; and such philanthropies as the Starr Foundation and the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

“It is too early to offshore a new industry before it is born,” says Andrew Grove, an Intel Corp. founder and one of the first to fund stem-cell study despite the feds’ ban. Bloomberg promises $100 million to fund stem-cell and other biotech research at Johns Hopkins University, blasting the Bush regime for abrogating government’s “most basic responsibility” to safeguard the public health when stem-cell breakthroughs may “save the lives of millions.”

In California voters have okayed a $3 billion outlay after lobbying from Bill Gates and Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar. Opponents have tied up the funding in court, but in the meantime Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has lent the state’s stem-cell agency $150 million to get going. Those bucks should start hitting university wallets early next year. Researchers “from top labs across the country are coming to California,” says neuroscientist Zach W. Hall, who oversees the effort. Still more funding is set in Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey and Wisconsin, states that have passed or are considering pro-stem-cell laws.

If the nonfederal funding accomplishes its goal, it will be breaking new ground. Every major medical treatment from Taxol to Lipitor has its roots in NIH-funded basic science. Without the NIH imprimatur, some young scientists are reluctant to stake their careers on embryonic stem cells. Roger Ashby, who heads StemCell Ventures, a tiny New York firm that funds experiments in Europe, says the U.S. restrictions give scientists overseas a huge advantage: “In America scientists are always looking over their shoulders and wondering if they are breaking a law.”

Stem-cell research dates to 1981 and started out with mouse embryos, which researchers used to study the effects of individual genes and to try treating disease in mice. In 1988 came the first federal ban when the first President Bush barred implanting humans with fetal tissue (fetuses are far more advanced in development than microscopic embryos). President Clinton took office in 1993 and lifted that ban, but in 1994 he ceded some ground to the anti-stem-cell crowd by blocking the use of federal money to create embryos for research. In 1996 the Republican-controlled Congress began forbidding the NIH to use funds for research in embryonic stem cells.

Two years later, though, one researcher derived the first human embryonic stem cells by turning to private funding. James Thomson, a biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, turned to Geron, a biotech firm in Menlo Park, Calif., to fund work at an off-campus lab and sidestep the U.S. ban. Other scientists took note, and pressure arose to ease the restraints on stem-cell labs.

Cut to August 2001: President George W. Bush, confronted with the controversy, splits the embryo. He decreed that no U.S. funding can go to new stem-cell lines (“That cluster of cells is the same way you and I started our lives”). But he allowed federal grants for embryo lines that already existed.

“It was wholly inconsistent,” says Douglas Melton, a Harvard researcher. “There’s no difference in the moral status” of a pre-ban embryo and a postban one. President Bush cited 60 existing lines that wouldn’t lose funding–but Intel’s Grove knew at most 20 existed and assumed the Bushies knew that, too. “The matter in which that happened indicated a disingenuousness about it that pissed me off,” Grove says in an interview.

So in 2002 Grove shot back, handing a $5 million gift to the stem-cell lab at University of California, San Francisco. Since then, UCSF has begun efforts to fund a $100 million lab devoted solely to stem-cell research, starting with $16 million from Ray Dolby. “We hope to build it as quickly as possible, perhaps in four years,” says UCSF neuroscientist Arnold Kriegstein. The school’s previous stem work had to go on at two off-campus sites to avoid the Bush blockage. “To get any of these advanced cell therapies into humans for the treatment of disease, we need to use human cells,” he says.

Even Republicans in Congress began fretting that the Bush ban went too far. Last year Senate Majority Leader William Frist suggested lifting the ban, and by summer both houses of Congress voted to do so. The President killed it with his first-ever veto in July, saying the bill supported “the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others.”

Disappointed though he is in the veto, billionaire Broad says he is optimistic Bush’s successor will reconsider the issue. His $25 million gift to UCS will build a 215,000-square-foot lab dedicated to embryonic stem cells, the biggest such lab in the state once it is ready in 2008.

Moreover, another 100 or so stem-cell lines have been created despite the Bush crackdown. Harvard University has raised $50 million in private funding and has devised 30 new lines from frozen embryos donated by infertile couples; other lines have emerged in Britain and Japan. Harvard’s Melton says: “It’s just common sense that a ball of cells frozen in liquid nitrogen is not the same as a 5-year-old girl with diabetes.”

He uses stem cells to study juvenile diabetes (his son and daughter have it), turning to the foundation of another billionaire–the late Howard Hughes. “Not only did we have a legal right to fund the research, we had an obligation,” says Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Melton landed enough money to start a separate lab, and he works on turning his stem line into insulin-producing cells to study where they go wrong in diabetics. But half his budget goes to redundant lab gear and overhead he wouldn’t need if it weren’t for the NIH rules against stem-cell funding. His stem-cell colleague at Harvard, M. Wiliam Lensch, uses only private funding from Harvard but worries about getting in trouble if he merely talks to NIH-funded peers in his lab.

At Memorial Sloan-Kettering, stem-cell biologist Lorenz Studer has received money from Project A.L.S. and the Starr and Michael J. Fox charities (Fox, the actor, has Parkinson’s). He cautiously puts yellow stickers on every piece of equipment used for banned experiments to inoculate his operation from any NIH contact. His grad students put stickers on wastebaskets to mock the NIH.

Douglas Kerr, a scientist at Johns Hopkins, which is using money from billionaire Bloomberg to create a stem-cell lab, says the lack of NIH help could delay a treatment for spinal cord injury for decades. In July he coaxed mouse embryonic stem cells to reconnect the nerves and muscles of paralyzed rats, allowing limited walking. With U.S. funding a treatment might be ready for human trials in five years, but that won’t happen in the current climate. “I am stuck. It is amazingly frustrating,” he says. “All I see are paralyzed patients. They have been following this work and I have to tell them I cannot do the experiments.”

Still, some billionaires have shied away from this science scrap. Bill Gates’ foundation, the largest in the world with $29 billion on hand, has put less than $2 million into research on human embryonic cells–at a lab at Peking University in China. Researchers there are implanting human cells in mice to look for better ways of making vaccines against aids and hepatitis C. A spokesperson for the Gates Foundation says the Peking researchers hit on the right idea; that the foundation hasn’t funded a single stem-cell test in the U.S., she adds, isn’t related to the anti-abortion fight.

An ardent opponent of stem-cell experimentation, Focus on the Family, takes a hard line. Billionaires have the right to fund this new field, says a senior analyst at the group, Carrie Gordon Earll, but she adds that all such research is immoral. “To destroy those human embryos is a huge moral question. We’re opposed to destructive embryo research regardless of who funds it.”

What of the argument that stem cells harvested from adults offer plenty of opportunity for research? Many lab coats demur. Adult stem cells in bone marrow can turn into blood and muscle and have great promise for treating a few diseases, such as heart failure and leukemia. Bone marrow transplants for blood cancers work because the marrow contains stem cells for producing blood. Similar cells show great promise in treating heart failure, as do cells from umbilical cord blood.

But no good alternative to embryonic lines exists for studying other diseases. Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s Studer spent years trying to transform adult stem cells into neurons to study why they die off prematurely in Parkinson’s disease. He failed and had to resort to embryonic cells. Harvard’s Lensch is studying the causes of a rare genetic anemia, but once stem cells become blood or bone marrow, he loses any chance to understand what goes wrong early in the disease.

Only recently have drug giants begun early work on stem cells. AstraZeneca collaborates with Cellartis, a biotech in Sweden, to create tests to identify drugs that damage the liver or the heart. General Electric and Novartis have tiny programs using nih-approved cells. Johnson & Johnson and Becton, Dickinson have backed a tiny company, Novocell, that targets diabetes.

The life-and-death question is whether these efforts and the largesse of Eli Broad and other patrons of science will be enough to let the U.S. lead the stem-cell revolution. Andy Grove says the backlash against stem cells is like movements in the 1800s to limit research using cadavers: “Science always wins out, but how many people die in the meantime?”
The Controversy

Rarely does something so microscopic generate rancor this big.

Embryonic stem cells hold great promise, but getting them means destroying embryos.

Scientists might understand and treat disease by experimenting with embryonic stem cells.

Stem cells found in the adult body are promising treatments but are not as flexible. Cells from aborted fetuses proved dangerous in some experiments.

Federal money for embryonic cells can go to only 21 lines of cells derived five years ago. At least a hundred are available. The U.K., Sweden and Singapore have state-funded embryonic stem-cell programs.

Cell donors

Billionaires have been at the forefront of funding controversial embryonic stem-cell research.

Michael Bloomberg

A reported $100 million gift to alma mater Johns Hopkins included cash for its stem-cell institute. At a speech there, he lambasted the feds for not funding the research.

Eli Broad

Gave $25 million to build a stem-cell building at USC. More gifts could be coming. A big supporter of the California proposition that could give researchers $3 billion.

Ray Dolby

With wife Dagmar gave $16 million to UCSF to help build a new stem-cell research center. Has remained quiet about his gift.

Larry Ellison

Through his medical foundation, has given almost $4 million to various embryonic stem-cell projects.

Bill Gates

He and wife Melinda donated $400,000 to the campaign to support California embryonic stem-cell proposition. Their foundation has given a $1.9 million grant to AIDS research at China’s Peking University that uses human embryonic stem cells.

Pierre Omidyar

He and wife Pamela donated a combined $1 million to the campaign supporting the California ballot proposition.

Matthew Herper and Robert Langreth

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