The federal government spent $25-million last year on studies involving human embryonic stem cells. But California could leapfrog over it with $300-million in spending in each of the next 10 years on stem cell research.
A coalition of Hollywood producers and actors, technology billionaires, scientists, patient advocates and business organizations _ including Michael J. Fox and Bill Gates _ has marshaled emotion, scientific argument and money to underwrite a state ballot proposal that would let Californians make the decision. The initiative on the Nov. 2 ballot, known as Proposition 71, would authorize the state to issue $3-billion in bonds to pay for a range of stem cell research. This promising but ethically controversial field of biomedical research is now severely limited by the Bush administration's policy restricting public money for research on embryonic stem cells.
Others are also moving to facilitate more stem cell research. Gov. James McGreevey of New Jersey signed legislation in May to establish a state-supported stem cell research facility, and Harvard University researchers are raising millions of dollars to pay for a stem cell institute.
But the California initiative would create by far the largest state-run scientific research effort in the country and make California a global center of stem cell research, on par with Singapore, Israel, South Korea and the United Kingdom, which have moved aggressively in the field since the late 1990s.
Critics say the initiative would be a publicly financed windfall for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, while repaying little to the taxpayers. They expect to be outspent at least 20-to-1 by supporters of the initiative and add that the state cannot afford $3-billion in new debt at a time when it is reducing spending on education, health care and public safety.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said that he supports stem cell research in principle but he has not announced a position on the initiative. The public appears to be about evenly split, though it has not yet been exposed to an expected barrage of television advertising featuring testimonials from scientists, celebrities and those suffering from diseases that might be treated by therapies derived from stem cells.
Backers of the measure include celebrities like Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, and Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed in a riding accident. It is also supported by dozens of elected officials, 22 Nobel laureates, 50 patient advocacy groups and several business organizations.
George P. Shultz, a Republican and a former secretary of state, and the California Chamber of Commerce support it, as do California's senators and more than half of its congressional delegation. Nancy Reagan, wife of former President Ronald Reagan, who died in June after a long battle with Alzheimer's, and her son, Ron Reagan, have not taken a stand on the measure, though they have made their support for stem cell research clear in the past.
Supporters have already raised nearly $15-million, with some donors giving more than $1-million each. Robert N. Klein, a Palo Alto real estate developer, is leading the effort to pass the measure and has contributed more than $2-million. His 14-year-old son has juvenile diabetes, and his mother is dying of Alzheimer's.
"We are on the edge of one of the great watershed medical discoveries in history," Klein said. Half of California's families are affected by one or more of the 70 diseases or conditions that could respond to stem cell therapies, he said, and the research could significantly reduce the $110-billion spent on health care in the state each year. In his view, California has the research infrastructure and the financial ability to support this venture.
"We have more than 50 percent of the biotech capacity in the United States and more than most other countries," he said. "We can run a substitute national program."
Opponents have raised only about $150,000, much of it from the state and national Catholic Church and from Howard Ahmanson Jr., a conservative businessman from Orange County. They oppose the research because it destroys human embryos and because some believe it leads to human cloning.
"I'd say we were David going up against Goliath," said Wayne C. Johnson, a Republican consultant who is coordinating the effort opposing the proposal, "but David had five smooth stones, and we don't have that yet."
The debate over embryonic stem cell research is among the most difficult in politics and science. Many scientists and patient advocacy groups believe these cells, which are the basic building blocks of the body from which the organs and other cells develop, can yield therapies and cures for diseases that affect as many as 125-million Americans.
But to develop the self-perpetuating colonies of stem cells, researchers must destroy human embryos, an act that is abhorrent to some.