WisBusiness: California stem cell measure could steal UW scientists

By Brian E. Clark

MADISON – That giant sucking sound you hear on Wednesday might be a good chunk of the country’s stem cell scientists – including some from Wisconsin – being drawn to California.

That’s because the Golden State’s Proposition 71, if it passes, would pump $3 billion in state bonds over the next decade into stem cell research. The ballot measure has been endorsed by popular Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the race is too close to call.

UW-Madison has some of the best minds in the field, including James Thomson, who six years ago isolated the first human embryonic stem cell lines.

Thomson was unavailable for comment, but the big question in academic circles is how much money it would take to lure Thomson and other scientists to the West Coast.

“Would $1 million a year and guaranteed funding (work)?” mused one insider, who asked not to be identified. “Who knows?”

Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, agreed that the passage of Prop. 71 will make it harder for the UW to retain and attract faculty. WARF manages patents produced by the university, including those dealing with stem cells.

“It’s a very serious concern and we’ve been talking to the governor about it,” he said. “It will be a sea change and very bad public policy. On the other hand, it will increase the licensing stream for WARF.

“It would be much more fair if the federal government were doing the majority of the funding and the money could be spread around the country,” he said. “If one state is doing the vast majority, it will create a major imbalance.”

As for someone like Thomson, Gulbrandsen said he would hate to see him leave.

“I hope he wouldn’t go,” he said. “We have a lot of investment in him and he is very important to our program and he is a great magnet for other researchers. Passage of Prop. 71 would change a lot of things.”

Alta Charo, a UW-Madison professor of law and medical ethics, said she has no doubt that California research institutions would raid other universities. “They would steal our scientists and take over the lead in stem cell research.

“They would have a source of funding that no one else could compete with,” she said.

“If Bush stays in office, California will be the place for scientists to go because of the restrictions his administration placed on embryonic stem cell research,” she said. “If Kerry is elected, the playing field will be somewhat leveled.”

Bush limited federal funding – the main source for university scientists – on embryonic stem cell research in 2001 to 78 lines. Since then, problems have made 57 of those lines unusable. Five of the lines are owned by a division of WARF.

Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, said he, too, believes California will go on a spending spree if Prop. 71 passes.

“It won’t happen on Wednesday, but it would affect us because Wisconsin is the state where embryonic stem cell science was discovered and where we have a distinct advantage,” he said.

“That advantage could erode if they offer the right conditions and money,” he said, noting that the UW-Madison has about $27 million in funding for its stem cell program this year.

“But money isn’t everything for this group of professors and researchers,” he said. “I think they appreciate the fact that they were given the chance to do it here first. I don’t know if they would be able to walk or bike to work at Stanford. I don’t think money alone would turn their heads.”

Still said he believes more research dollars will go to UW in coming years for stem cell research from federal or private sources, though nowhere near the $3 billion figure California is poised to pump into its program.

And while some in the state Legislature would end all funding for embryonic stem cell research, he said the state has invested millions to provide the infrastructure for Thomson and his colleagues to do their work.

“We are certainly watching this with a great deal of interest, and it’s not entirely with trepidation,” he said. “Perhaps policy makers here and in Washington D.C. will see that there is public support for this research. It could change things all over.”

Because Wisconsin residents cannot enact legislation through ballot propositions – as in California and many western states – they cannot go around the Legislature to fund programs like embryonic stem cell research.

Tom Hefty, co-chair of Gov. Jim Doyle’s Economic Growth Council, said Prop. 71 is a threat to Wisconsin’s research leadership.

“On the other had, it gives us an opportunity to accelerate our own efforts,” said Hefty, former chair of Blue Cross and Blue Shield United.

Hefty said Wisconsin is sitting on a several hundred million dollars in unrestricted medical research funds – a result of the change five years ago that converted Blue Cross into a publicly traded company. He said the money is in a foundation and can be used by the UW-Madison Medical School and the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

“UW-Madison, which has a leadership position in stem cell research, has an opportunity to more quickly deploy their funding to compete in the national market place,” he said. “Certainly, California is a threat, but we need to get off our backsides and use the resources that we have to accelerate our program and gain even more recognition.”