Connecticut state legislators pledged this week to introduce and support a bill funding stem cell research at institutions in the state, including Yale and the University of Connecticut.
Though the exact amount of money that would be available for research has been left for later discussion, if passed, the bill would guarantee state support of adult and embryonic stem cell research but prohibit human cloning. Current Connecticut law has no provisions regarding embryonic stem cell research.
University President Richard Levin said the bill has stemmed from a fear that research centers in the state, including Yale, will not be able to match institutions in states such as California, which committed money to stem cell research last fall.
“It’s essentially a competitive response to what California did in the November election,” Levin said. “The concern here, which is being expressed [not only] by Yale and UConn, but also by all the biotech companies in Connecticut, is that Connecticut could be severely disadvantaged if only California allows stem cell research on stem cells beyond the designated lines.”
Levin said Yale is currently only working with existing cell lines.
School of Medicine assistant professor and stem cell researcher Diane Krause, who advised the bill’s authors, said the proposed funding could deter experts from leaving Connecticut for positions in other states and would bolster scientific work at Yale.
“I have been recruited for positions at out-of-state institutions,” Krause said. “The threat that Connecticut might lose existing scientists is real. Additionally, young researchers who are looking for new jobs are gravitating towards environments that are most supportive of stem cell research.”
Krause said an earlier version of the bill was approved by the state senate last year but did not pass in the house. She said the current political climate, with Gov. Jodi Rell and a large number of legislators speaking out in support of stem cell research, is more favorable and bodes well for the legislation.
Passage of the bill would allow for an expansion of embryonic stem cell research at Yale and in other parts of the state, she said. Federal grants for such work have been strictly limited by the Bush administration.
“Resources would become available that would allow Yale to build a bigger, stronger stem cell research program,” Krause said. “Right now, the core labs that would require resources don’t even exist.”
Because embryonic cells can develop into nearly any type of cell — a potential that adult stem cells have not been proven to possess — many scientists say the cells have the potential to treat any number of chronic diseases, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Projections from the governor and state legislators estimate funding will range from $10 million to $100 million over a 10-year period, but the proposed appropriation is not without opposition in the capital.
State Senate Minority Leader Louis DeLuca, a Republican from Woodbury, said he believes embryonic stem cell research is immoral and questioned its research value.
“Stem cell research is oversold as the panacea to all of man’s ills that will also provide all kinds of jobs,” DeLuca said. “But I don’t believe it. We have had adult stem research going on at many institutions, including Yale, and that has not produced any of these things. There is no reason to believe embryonic stem cell research will either.”
DeLuca also expressed concern that there can be no guarantee that cells used will be limited to those taken from embryos that would otherwise be discarded. Also, he said, the amount of money available for research in Connecticut would fail to make the state competitive with California, which has allocated $3 billion for research.
“It would be like trying to get little league baseball players into the major leagues,” DeLuca said.
Other legislators have pointed out that California has many more institutions competing for available state funds than would Connecticut.
Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern said the bill’s passage could benefit both the medical school and the state at large.
“It would be terrific, allowing us to expand stem cell research and recruit some stellar new faculty,” Alpern said. “Aside from the academic benefits, stem cell research will also be a likely source of new biotechnology, and so Connecticut should want to be a player in this movement.”
The stem cell legislation is currently being reviewed by the state senate’s Joint Committee on Public Health.