WASHINGTON — The person to watch in American medical science today is a California real estate developer named Robert Klein II. As the driving force behind the initiative to invest $3 billion in stem-cell research over the next decade, the builder-financier has just been nominated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to head the citizens’ committee overseeing the state’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
Here we have federalism in action, with states competing to lead the central government in creating national policy. When the government in Washington decided to move cautiously in funding this promising but controversial scientific research, individual states saw the competitive opportunity and made their move.
California’s voters voted 3 to 2 to pour $300 million a year for a decade into embryonic stem-cell research — 10 times the current rate of federal support — in hopes of finding treatments or cures for a variety of diseases. Unless regeneration degenerates into a boondoggle, the state will thereby become the global center for such advanced research.
Wisconsin, where researchers may have been the first to isolate and grow human embryonic stem cells, was “galvanized and focused” by the California challenge, said its governor, Jim Doyle. He promptly proposed spending $750 million to bolster his state’s biotech industry.
New Jersey’s new acting governor, Richard Codey says he will invest $9.5 million in his state’s new research institute, and he is trying to boost that in a consortium with Pennsylvania and Delaware.
That would provide those Eastern states with a way to keep local scientists from pulling up stakes to join what California’s lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, hails as “this century’s gold rush.”
And not just government money is mining this new field. Harvard researchers have doubled the score of lines of embryonic cells already available at the National Institutes of Health with money from the university’s own deep pockets and from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
This burgeoning state activity tells us that the controversy about some uses of cells from frozen human embryos discarded by fertility clinics is being leapfrogged. Never “banned,” such research is openly under way.
The moral issue of destroying potential lives to save actual lives may be dealt with by scientists who are not in conflict with ethicists. Adult stem cells may turn out to be more adaptable to regeneration than some now think. And in recent weeks, we learned of experiments to harvest viable cells from embryos that have no potential for life — the ethical equivalent of an organ transplant.
Dr. Leon Kass, chairman of the president’s bioethics panel, told The Washington Post that such advances would raise the possibility that “the partisans of scientific progress and the defenders of the dignity of nascent human life can go forward in partnership without anyone having to violate things they hold dear.”
We all wish. But the looming issue is cloning. Not reproductive cloning; most scientists reject that odious goal.
Therapeutic cloning of cells for the worthy purpose of curing disease, however, troubles people who fear the slippery slope leading to attempts to clone human beings. A majority of Americans disagree with the slippery-slopers and come down on the side of running that danger in the hope of finding cures.
I’m with the hopers on this, and also hope President Bush opens his mind to the medical scientists’ patient-oriented, pro-living position.
If he does not, the United States will devolve on today’s federalist trail, going to a state-by-state, local-option, privately supported competition to determine guidelines for ethical stem-cell research.
That would be no disaster; private mores and local codes, debated on the Internet and at the kitchen table, would ultimately create a national consensus on genethics, as it has been doing on attitudes toward abortion, health care and sexuality.
But there is urgency for those needing medical breakthroughs in a few years. For that reason, it would be good for the president and Congress to get out in front of California’s stem-cell gold rush.
William Safire is a columnist for The New York Times. Write to him at 229 W. 43rd St., Room 943, New York, NY 10036. His e-mail address is email@example.com.