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Proponents of initiative to fund stem cell research pull in big money

by Vincent J. SchodolskiChicago Tribune
September 13th, 2004

Although polls show voters evenly divided, the battle over a California ballot initiative to create a taxpayer-funded institute for embryonic stem cell research would appear to be a lopsided affair, judging by official records of contributions.

Those favoring Proposition 71 have raised more than $12 million, while opponents have amassed just $115,000.

Proponents include Microsoft's Bill Gates, who gave $400,000. Venture capitalist John Doerr, an early backer of Internet search engine Google, also contributed, as did eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

Actors Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeve, both suffering from conditions that might one day be helped by stem cell research, also gave money.

Many smaller donors are people like Carol Eisner, whose daughter Emma has juvenile diabetes, one of the diseases researchers hope might be alleviated through stem cell work.

"The potential of our daughter going into a coma, nightmares of amputation and accidental death lurk over our heads like a raven," Eisner said. "We are on the verge of finding a cure; we need new ways of seeking islet cells to replace the ones destroyed in Emma's pancreas."

Eisner is aware that little progress has been made so far in embryonic stem cell research, but favors the proposition because it holds out hope for her daughter and others.

The Bush administration's policy limits federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to the 78 "lines" of such cells that existed when the president made his decision in November 2001.

Many opponents of the California measure - including the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church - argue that the destruction of these embryos is tantamount to infanticide. And they say that the creation of such embryos for research amounts to human cloning.

"It is the same thing as cloning," said Carol Hogan, a spokeswoman for the California Catholic Conference, which is fighting Proposition 71. "Isn't that the heart of the matter?"

Hogan said the Catholic Conference was preparing educational material and homily notes for distribution in parishes across California.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops contributed $50,000 to the opposition campaign - nearly half of all the money raised thus far. Another $50,000 was donated by Howard Ahmanson Jr., a wealthy philanthropist who supports evangelical Christian causes.

Polls show that California voters are evenly divided on the measure, and proponents say they plan an advertising blitz between now and Nov. 2.

"We need to do everything we can do in the next eight weeks," said Fiona Hutton, a spokeswoman for groups supporting Proposition 71.

Hutton acknowledged that many wealthy individuals had donated large sums of money to the campaign, but insisted that most of the money came from families with members suffering from diseases that might be cured or alleviated through stem cell research.

According to records complied by the California secretary of state's office, one of the biggest donors is California developer Thomas Coleman, a Republican and who normally gives money to Republican candidates and causes. Coleman's daughter has juvenile diabetes.

Much of the money has come from venture capitalists and executives of drug companies that could make a great deal of money if stem cell research produces practical results.

Two weeks ago, William Bowes Jr., founding chairman of biotechnology giant Amgen, donated 22,400 shares of the company's stock to the campaign for Proposition 71. Based on the stock's closing price Friday, the value of his gift is more than $1.2 million.

The proposition authorizes the establishment of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine and a loan of $3 billion from the state's general fund to conduct the research.

Federal funding is allowed for research involving adult stem cells and the limited number of lines of embryonic stem cells that existed when the Bush administration issued its rules. The new research in California, if approved, would involve creating new embryonic lines.

"This entire exercise is one of the most bizarre in the history of American popular democracy," said Nigel Cameron, president of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

"The fact that Proposition 71 is getting huge financial support from the very scientists and venture capitalists who will profit from its $300 million a year in handouts is hardly a surprise, but it is a huge scandal," Cameron said.

One of the arguments made by supporters of the measure is that the state could eventually own valuable patents derived from the research.

But Cameron is skeptical.

"If mass-production cloning had the kind of prospect of curing disease that the proposition's backers believe, or anything like it, their venture capital would fund the science directly," he said.

"As it stands, we don't even have animal models that work, whereas ethical adult stem cell science is sending home patients from hospitals every day."

So far, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not taken a public position on Proposition 71.

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