Calif. vote gives U research competition

by Cati Vanden Breul

A vote in California to publicly fund embryonic stem cell research could bring some serious competition to the University’s Stem Cell Institute.

Californians voted Nov. 2 to use $3 billion of taxpayer funds for stem cell research over the next 10 years.

The amount far exceeds the funding available to state-supported universities and will likely draw some of the nation’s best researchers to California.

Stem Cell Institute investigator Dan Kaufman said that because only two weeks have passed, it is hard to say how seriously the vote will affect the University’s institute.

But, he said California will have a great opportunity to advance embryonic stem cell research.

“Investigators in California will be very well situated to do unique and cutting-edge work,” Kaufman said.

He said he is not worried the University’s institute will lose existing faculty, but rather that young, up-and-coming researchers will be attracted to California instead of Minnesota.

Sarah Youngerman, a Stem Cell Institute spokeswoman at the University, said post-doctoral and young researchers are beneficial for a research center.

“They are the vitality and core strength behind research,” Youngerman said.

But she said the University’s institute remains an attractive place to do research and will still attract scientists.

“We won’t be wanting or lacking for good investigators here,” Kaufman agreed.

Youngerman said the California referendum sends a positive message to the rest of the country.

“This is really a very big statement coming from elected officials about stem cell research,” she said. “They not only have the funding, but also the public policy support.”

Nancy Beddingfield, media spokeswoman for the Burnham Institute in California, said many researchers don’t view the funding as competition but as a way to advance embryonic stem cell research.

“It’s a spring-up for collaboration, which is what research is all about,” Beddingfield said.

Kaufman said he does not expect to see the same type of funding initiative passed in Minnesota anytime soon.

He said the institute gets its funding mainly from private donors and federal grants. The National Institutes of Health has provided Minnesota researchers with more than $39 million in funding, according to the institute’s Web site.

Youngerman said state legislators need to take a look at what is happening in California if they want to remain a national leader in stem cell research.

She said several other states, including New Jersey, are looking at initiatives similar to the one passed in California.

Kaufman said the government only funds embryonic stem cell research involving existing lines, which places a limitation on investigators who receive a majority of their funding from the federal government.

He said it is unclear whether the Bush administration will loosen the policy now that the election is over.

But Beddingfield said because of the California vote, President George W. Bush might ease federal restrictions on stem cell research.

“There is some serious chatter that he might rethink his policies,” she said.