Marketplace Report: California and Stem-Cell Research

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Scientists and state officials around the country are keeping a close eye on a trial that begins Monday in California involving the funding of embryonic stem cell research. Californians approved a measure to spend $3 billion on this work back in 2004, but the funding has been locked up in litigation. Madeleine Brand talks with Marketplace's Janet Babin.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Back now with Day to Day. A big lawsuit begins today in California. The subject, embryonic stem cell research. A couple of years ago, Californians approved a measure to spend $3 billion in the state on stem cell research, but the funding has been kept held up by a lawsuit.

Marketplace's Janet Babin is here. Janet, who brought this lawsuit that have delayed this funding for this and what's the suit about? I guess there's more than one of them.

JANET BABIN reporting:

That's right, Alex. The suits have been sort of consolidated, and one of the lawsuits was filed by two groups, The People's Advocate and the National Tax Limitation Foundation. And the other comes from the California Family Bio-Ethics Council, and that's an offshoot of the pro-life California Family Council.

And the lawsuit allege that the way the public funds are doled out for this research, it puts state money in the hands of the very people who stand to benefit from it, sort of a conflict of interest situation. And the lawsuits also say that the whole set-up is really unconstitutional because taxpayer money goes to an entity that is not exclusively under state control, and they say that violates the Constitution.

But California stem cell executives say that the lawsuits are really just a screen for pro-life objections and that these groups really just want to stop all embryonic research.

CHADWICK: Well, the research is already controversial in and of itself.

BABIN: That's right. The embryonic stem cell research is. Embryonic stem cells are created shortly after conception and they have this amazing ability to morph into other organs and tissues, making them desirable for people with degenerative diseases and for researchers. And five years ago, President Bush limited funding for this embryonic stem cell research because of objections that the research destroys embryos.

CHADWICK: So the lack of federal funding, it's an important reason that California moved forward with its own stem cell initiative. What about the rest of the country?

BABIN: Right. Connecticut and Illinois have authorized funding for this research. New Jersey is actually the only state that's so far allocated funds. And a number of other states, including New York and Maryland, they're close to funding some version of it. But many researchers complain that a patchwork of state policies really isn't the answer here. I spoke to Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg, she works with stem cells at Duke University Medical Center, and she says funding and oversight should come from the National Institute of Health.

Dr. JOANNE KURTZBERG (Duke University Medical Center): I just think that that makes the standard and quality of research the highest. But if the government isn't going to step up to the plate and the state legislatures can afford to do it, I think that would be better than having this driven by pharmaceutical companies.

BABIN: Dr. Kurtzberg thinks that if this stem cell work is overseen by industry or even the wrong state officials, that there's the potential for the public to really lose out because certain therapies wouldn't get the attention they need.

Coming up later today on Marketplace, we'll be taking a look at the economic reasons behind a wave of street protests in Latin America.

CHADWICK: Thank you, Janet. Janet Babin of public radio's daily business show, Marketplace, from American Public Media.

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