February 25, 2024

Elation over California stem cell funding

With the political battle over, politicians, scientists and activists are pondering the significance of California's Proposition 71, which guarantees US$3 billion in funding for embryonic stem cell research. Reflecting the excitement of the scientific community, the Los Angeles Times advised California to “waste no time realising the worst fears of the editors at London's Financial Times, who last week flagged the measure as a “threat… to Britain's position as world leader in stem cell research”.

California's lead may influence legislation in other states. The Massachusetts Biotechnology Council is eager to promote legislative support for stem cell research. Its new president is the former speaker of the Massachusetts House, Thomas M. Finneran, a pro-life Catholic who opposed embryo research in the legislature. He has had a conversion of both employer and convictions and is now lobbying hard to keep the biotech industry in his state.

The leading journal Nature said that victory in the referendum showed “the faith of the public in science's potential to make life better”. The Washington bureau chief for the Boston Globe argued that progress in this line of research in California will show that President Bush's restrictions on embryo research are based squarely on religious prejudice. Bioethicist Arthur Caplan agreed, saying “if it delivers, there will be a lot of pressure to lift the federal ban. But I'm not looking for any breakthroughs for three to four years.”

Some California scientists warn that administering the funds will not be easy. “I'm concerned… (that) anything that even resembles a stem cell will suddenly be called a stem cell or said to have a bearing on stem cell biology,” said Theo Palmer, a Stanford University neuroscientist who works on both adult and embryonic stem cells.

The comfortable margin of victory also prompted reflections about the role of celebrities in marketing medicine. Although Mel Gibson spoke out against Proposition 71, he was outnumbered by Hollywood stars like Brad Pitt who backed it. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, celebrities chatting about disease has become so ubiquitous that it seems they are almost expected to pick a disease if they've been lucky enough not to have nature assign one to them or their loved ones. Agencies such as Celebrity Connection and Celebrity Endorsement Network have sprung up to match celebrities with diseases.”

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