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Amid high hopes, stem cell research ramps up

On Election Day, California voters chose to fund stem cell research. Now scientists must decide where to begin and how to spend the money. NBC's Robert Bazell reports.

It was called Proposition 71 on the California ballot in November. And its passage put the state in the business of paying for one of the largest scientific endeavors in history — an attempt to find treatments for diseases ranging from diabetes to Parkinson's disease. But is it a doable task?

Joan Samuelson has been battling Parkinson's disease for more than 15 years. She worked hard for California's vote on embryonic stem cell research. Now she's a member of the panel that will spend $3 billion on it, and she has high expectations.

"If the money is spent and there aren't effective treatments that result, I think there will be hell to pay," says Samuelson.

The voter initiative — endorsed by dozens of celebrities — began as a response to President Bush's strict limits on federal money for the research. But it quickly changed into something else: a demand not for basic research, but for quick results.

That's why many scientists and university administrators in California worry that the money could come too fast to be spent efficiently and might create unrealistic demands for cures for all sorts of diseases.

The money is attracting lots of talent — what many call the stem cell gold rush.  Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, head of the University of California San Francisco's new Stem Cell Institute moved from Columbia University in New York.

"I've received e-mails and inquiries from scientists and colleagues in other parts of the country who are now interested in coming to California," says Dr. Kriegstein.

But he and others point out embryonic stem cells have yet to cure anything.

"We're going to have to do the science," says Dr. David Kessler, dean of the UCSF medical school and former head of the FDA. "We can't have cowboys out there doing things, especially when it comes to patients."

Joan Samuelson has little patience for such talk.

"We wake up with dreadful diseases that are going to kill us or paralyze us or otherwise disable us and so we can't forget about it ever," she says.

A committee of 29 scientists and activists like Samuelson will decide how to spend the money. They hope to start in a few months.