President Obama's March 9 move to allow federal funding for stem-cell research is expected to greatly benefit states such as California that already have invested in the controversial science. But the decision - which lifts an eight-year-old ban by the Bush administration - will give nearly all states a shot at job-creating new grants in the multi-billion-dollar emerging biomedical field.
"States that stuck their necks out and supported the science early on will have a built-in advantage because they've attracted research talent, built the facilities and have ongoing studies that will make their grant applications more attractive," said Michael Werner, a lobbyist for bioscience researchers.
In the 11 years since University of Wisconsin scientists announced they had harvested potentially life-saving stem cells from human embryos, the bioethical dilemma the breakthrough poses has stymied the federal government, causing a handful of states to put taxpayer dollars on the line to keep stem-cell research afloat.
At issue is whether potential cures for deadly and debilitating conditions that affect millions of Americans such as spinal cord injuries, juvenile diabetes, Alzheimer's, Lou Gehrig's and Parkinson's disease is worth the moral cost of destroying human embryos.
For the Obama administration, the answer was yes: "We will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield," Obama said in a public statement.
In the past five years, seven Republican and Democratic governors have staked their political reputations on stem-cell research in the hope of leading the nation in developing it.
Since August 2001 when federal money was curtailed, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York began offering state grants. Wisconsin built a $750 million research center for the embryonic studies. And Iowa, Michigan and Missouri removed legal impediments to the science. Five states -Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, North Dakota and South Dakota -took the opposite approach and banned the science.
Now that the Obama administration has removed the barrier to federal funding, experts say some cash-strapped states may scale back their annual appropriations. Lawmakers in Maryland, for example, are questioning Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to spend $56 million on scientific grants next year while other state programs are being cut.
California - whose voters in 2004 approved borrowing $3 billion for stem cell research - has also been forced to trim its spending over the past year, and other states are facing similar pressures.
In New York, which is suffering one of the worst financial crises in the country, Democratic Gov. David Paterson applauded Obama's decision. "Support for stem-cell research offers hope for better health to millions while providing an economic stimulus to the biomedical industry," he said.
National polls indicate a majority of Americans approve of embryonic stem- cell research, which uses cells found in days-old human embryos that can be transformed into tissue cells of any organ of the body. Scientists say these so-called pluripotent stem cells hold the key to curing a host of human diseases.
Opponents say embryonic research should be stopped because recent discoveries raise the possibility of transforming adult cells into pluripotent cells, making it unnecessary to destroy human embryos.
"This advance reminds us once again that medical progress and respect for human life are not in conflict; they can and should support and enrich one another for the good of all," Cardinal Justin Rigali of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said.
While most developed countries restrict or prohibit stem-cell research, the U.S. government allows all forms of the science. As a result, state universities, private nonprofit and corporate laboratories were free to pursue the research except in states that prohibit it, even under Bush's funding ban.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the federal government's scientific grant-making organization, has 120 days to work out details of the new program so researchers can begin submitting grants. Funding available for all life science grants includes NIH's normal annual budget of about $29 billion, plus an additional $10 billion from the stimulus package.
States that Fund Stem-Cell Studies
New Jersey in 2004 became the first state to support stem-cell research, earmarking $10 million to be distributed over 10 years to university, non-profit and commercial labs in the state. Lawmakers have since appropriated another $15 million for grants and $9.5 million to cover administrative costs of the program.
California voters in 2004 approved Proposition 71, a 10-year, $3 billion funding program. The program became embroiled in legal proceedings over patent rights to the resulting discoveries and the makeup of the grant program's governing board. Because funding was stalled, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) gave the program a state loan of $150 million in August 2006. This year, California's stem-cell program may run out of money because the state's fiscal crisis and problems in the financial markets have prevented it from issuing bonds.
Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R) signed a measure in June 2005 to provide $100 million in state funding over 10 years for embryonic stem-cell research.
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) directed the public health department in July 2005 to grant $10 million to stem-cell projects over 10 years and added $5 million more to the fund in July 2006 after Bush vetoed a bill seeking to open up federal funding for the science.
Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) signed a measure in 2006 appropriating $15 million in general funds to be distributed in 2007. First-term Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) appropriated an additional $23 million to be distributed in 2008.
New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) signed a budget measure in April 2007 that set aside $600 million for stem-cell research over the next 11 years.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) in June 2008 approved $1 billion in grants for life science studies, including stem cell research.
Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) created a $750 million investment fund, including public and private money, to build a research facility where embryonic stem-cell studies may be conducted.
States With Legal Support for Stem-Cell Studies:
Michigan voters in 2008 approved a constitutional amendment making all forms of embryonic studies approved by the federal government legal in the state. The measure overturned a 1978 law banning all research involving human embryos, but leaves on the books a 1998 law prohibiting human cloning techniques.
Missouri voters in 2006 approved a constitutional amendment ensuring the right to practice the science and receive the resulting therapies. The measure came in reaction to legislative attempts to ban the studies.
See related stories:
Stem-cell science an election issue in 3 states (10/9/2008)
States vie for stem-cell scientists (1/15/2008)
Embryonic stem cell research divides states (6/21/2007)
More govs boost stem cell research (4/5/2007)
Stem cell debate goes to voters (10/5/2006)
States eye stem cell research economics (1/10/2006)