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California gives go-aheadto stem-cell research

/ Source: staff and news service reports

Californians came down on the side of stem-cell research Tuesday by passing a controversial bond measure that devotes $3 billion to human embryonic stem-cell experiments and comprises the biggest-ever state-supported scientific research program in the country. Proposition 71 won 59 percent of the vote with about 78 percent of precincts reporting.

The passage of the measure — designed to get around the Bush administration’s restrictions on the funding of such research — will likely put California at the forefront of the field and dwarfs all current stem-cell projects in the United States, whether privately or publicly financed.

The measure gained favor in recent days — according to a poll released Sunday, 54 percent of likely voters approved of it.

Two months ago, California voters were split on the measure, according to the Field Research Corp. But Field’s poll conducted last week found approval has grown to 54 percent while 37 percent of those polled were against the measure.

The poll was carried out by telephone, in English and Spanish, with 1,086 randomly selected likely voters statewide. The margin of error was 4.3 percent.

While President Bush opposes most forms of stem-cell research, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger backed the measure, which funds embryonic stem-cell research at a state level. Federal funding is currently limited to adult stem cells and a few lines of embryonic stem cells, which many scientists say are of poor quality and unfit for research.

$300 million a year

Proposition 71 authorizes the state to sell $3 billion in bonds and then dispense nearly $300 million a year for 10 years to researchers for human embryonic stem-cell experiments, including cloning projects intended solely for research purposes. It bans the funding of cloning to create babies.

Many scientists believe stem cells hold vast promise for treating an array of diseases from diabetes to Parkinson’s. Stem cells can potentially grow into any type of human tissue and scientists hope to be able to direct the blank cells to grow into specific cell types needed for transplant.

Stem cells are harvested from embryos, which are destroyed in the process. They were first discovered in 1997 and even the research’s most enthusiastic supporters acknowledge that medicines created with stem cells are still many years away.

Circumventing Bush

A contentious election issue in California, the measure pitted scientists, sympathetic patients who could benefit from stem cells, and biotechnology interests against the Roman Catholic Church and conservatives opposed to the research because it involves destroying days-old embryos and cloning. State budget hawks also opposed the measure because they fear it would sink the state deeper into debt.

Some 22 Nobel laureates and many other scientists supported Proposition 71 as a way to get around the Bush administration restrictions on research. They complain that the political climate has brought the field to a virtual standstill in the United States.

Prominent supporters

Among those who bankrolled the measure was Bill Gates, who contributed $400,000. Silicon Valley tycoons such as Google investor John Doerr and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar donated millions.

Real estate developer Robert Klein II donated $2 million. Klein’s son suffers from juvenile diabetes.

Several prominent Republicans also endorsed the research, most notably former first lady Nancy Reagan. Millionaire developer Thomas Coleman, a regular contributor to GOP candidates, donated $378,000. Coleman’s daughter has diabetes.

The measure was also endorsed by actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s, and the late Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed in a riding accident.