Locals seek more stem cell funds



University and city officials said while Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s proposal for $20 million in funding for state embryonic stem cell research is a good starting point, more funding will be needed to make the state competitive in stem cell research.

Rell, a Republican, announced last week she would recommend the funds be allocated over two years as an initial investment. The money would be placed in a statewide fund to be distributed to research institutions, most likely including Yale. The State House of Representatives will likely vote on a bill for stem cell research funding during this year’s legislative session, though the amount of money to be allocated is yet to be determined.

Medical School Dean Robert Alpern said that although he believes Rell’s proposal represents a move in the right direction for funding stem cell research, a longer-term commitment will be needed to create a competitive stem cell program at Yale. He suggested the state provide $100 million over 10 years for all institutions, the same amount proposed by some Democratic leaders in the legislature.

“Yale presumably would get a significant fraction of that money,” Alpern said.

If the University received funding, he said, it would likely be used to help build new facilities, buy laboratory equipment and recruit faculty.

New Haven Economic Development Administrator Henry Fernandez said the research funding would only offer a small amount of money compared to the annual private biotechnology investment in New Haven. In recent years, New Haven has grown as a regional biotechnology center.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but a small step,” Fernandez said.

Rell referenced Yale specifically in a statement issued Friday, in which she said the fund — which she suggested come from this year’s $315 million budget surplus — would boost Connecticut’s economy by creating new jobs while contributing to research that could eventually save lives.

“We all agree that bioscience belongs in Connecticut,” Rell said in the statement. “We have world-class research universities at the University of Connecticut and Yale, and we are the home to an increasing number of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.”

Yale laboratory medicine professor Diane Krause, who assisted in writing the stem cell research bill, said it is too early to be sure that the state funds will make a significant difference for research at Yale.

“We can’t make the assumption that most of the money will go to Yale and [the University of Connecticut],” Krause said. “There are also bio-tech interests, and nothing is set in stone yet. A too-small investment puts us in a weak position. While $20 million is an excellent initial investment, we need a long-term commitment from the state — Other states are talking about putting in 10 to 100 times more money.”

Krause said most current stem cell research at Yale is funded by individual grants to scientists from the National Institutes of Health and involves adult, not embryonic, stem cell lines. She said only about 5 percent of her own stem cell research funding comes from private donations.

Opponents of the research, including many members of the Republican Party, contend that the use of embryonic cells, rather than adult cells, unnecessarily destroys human life. President Bush issued an executive order in 2001 banning federal funding for research using new human embryonic cell lines.

Brian Brown, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, said embryonic stem cell research is unethical and has not been proven effective for curing diseases.

“This is not based on science, it’s based on myth,” Brown said. “It’s a very bad idea, and worse, you’re using taxpayer money to do this.”

But members of the legislature said there was broad bipartisan support in Connecticut for funding the research.

“It’s a relatively small fraction of folks who are concerned about it,” said state representative Mike Lawlor, a Democrat from East Haven.

In the last election, California allocated $3 billion over 10 years to embryonic stem cell research. Since that time, several other states have considered creating funds similar to the one proposed by Rell.

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