California Stem Cell Pioneer Makes Passionate Plea at AAAS Forum
Robert Klein, who guided California's controversial stem cell measure to a historic win in November, said Thursday that therapies derived from the research could help taxpayers save billions of dollars in future medical costs for the treatment of debilitating diseases and injuries.
But at the 30th annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy, Klein warned that the new California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is already under attack in the courts and in Congress. And he urged medical and research scientists to join with doctors, patient rights groups and business interests nationwide in an alliance to defend and expand stem cell research state by state.
"In the last century, [states] distinguished themselves and their prosperity was built on investments in their physical capitalthe bridges, the roads, the buildings," he told some 500 people who attended the Forum's opening day. "But in this next century, they will distinguish themselves by investment in the intellectual infrastructure, intellectual capital, because that's what will compel the health of the future, and the prosperity of the future, of these states."
Klein is a lawyer and real estate developer, but his interest turned to cutting-edge medical research after his young son was diagnosed with Type I diabetes and his mother was afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. He became the driving force behind California's Proposition 71, which proposed to sell $3 billion in bonds and use the proceeds over 10 years for facilities and research into embryonic stem cell therapies that are ineligible for federal grants.
The measure was an answer to the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, who has sharply restricted funding for embryonic stem cell research, citing moral concerns about any course that requires the destruction of an early-stage embryo.
The California measure passed with 59 percent of the vote, and Klein has since been named chairman of the new California Institute of Regenerative Medicine.
At the AAAS Forum in Washington, D.C., Klein said California's powerful economy, its vast research infrastructure and its political culture made it "the logical place" to lead a state-based effort to make the U.S. a leader in the globally competitive field of stem cell research. He sees California as a model for similar efforts now underway in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and other states.
The states' efforts are crucial, he told the audience, because of the "paralysis" in Washington. The Bush administration's response to the promises of embryonic stem cell research has been "totally inadequate," he said. Federal scientists who favored a strong role in guiding the research have found their hands bound by "religious doctrine and dogma."
Klein claimed the California measure won significant support from religious people in California, including some pro-life activists who worked on the campaign. But he acknowledged that religious groups and others have targeted the California institute, saying that a lawsuit arising from the anti-abortion movement "is definitely slowing us down."
He was pointedly critical of a measure introduced in Congress recently by U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, a Florida Republican, claiming that it would subject parents who seek embryonic stem cell therapies for their children subject to arrest and imprisonment.
"The bill says that if you participate in this therapy, you are a criminal," Klein said. "This is a radical assertion of a new role of government that interferes with the basic decisions of a family to find the best medical care for their children or their aging parents."
Klein made his presentation during a panel discussion on federal research and development spending, where the forecast was largely gloomy.
Kei Koizumi, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, said federal research and development spending is $132 billion in the current fiscal year, an all-time high. But under the administration's proposed 2006 budget, he said, an overall increase of 0.1 percent will leave R&D spending at most agencies losing ground to inflation.
Paul Posner, managing director of federal budget issues for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, said budget deficits, outstanding debt and other liabilities have accumulated to a current total of $150,000 for every U.S. resident. If the administration's tax cuts are made permanent, he said, the nation will face such a revenue shortfall by 2040 that the government will have only enough income to cover its debtbut nothing left over to pay for other government programs.
"We have a train wreck in our future," he said. "We are never going to get out of deficits unless we make some fundamental choices in the federal budget….We cannot continue on this course."
Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, blamed the tax cuts for "the most precipitous reversal of U.S. Treasury finances in recent history." R&D spending is directly linked to future economic growth, Lilly said, but R&D spending as a percentage of the gross domestic product is on track to fall by a third in coming years. And, he added, unexpected economic shocks could make the R&D decline even more steep.
Much of the current and future budget stress comes from Medicare. While stem cell research has an uncertain future, Klein said, therapeutic breakthroughs for chronic disease and critical injuries could save state and federal governments billions of dollars that are now paid for extended treatment.
"We're running at a budget wall at 90 miles an hour, without vision," he said. "We have to invest in the future if we're to have any chance of mitigating the cost."
California's medical and research community is hopeful about such progressthe state's top universities and medical research centers are pushing ahead with ambitious new plans built around the stem cell initiative, Klein said. And, he added, a "remarkable" number of "the best and brightest" young researchers nationwide are seeking to move to California to join the effort.
Edward W. Lempinen
22 April 2005