New survey shows Golden State is magnet for stem-cell researchers

One of the promises made by proponents of Proposition 71 was that it would turn California into a Mecca for stem-cell research. According to a new study from Princeton University, this promise is starting to come true.

A survey of medical researchers published on July 13 in the academic journal Nature Biotechnology shows three trends that are likely music to the ears of Proposition 71 supporters. First, stem-cell researchers are more likely to get job offers than other researchers. Second, those offers are disproportionately likely to come from California. Third, California jobs appear to be a major factor in keeping many stem-cell researchers from leaving the country altogether.

One-third of the domestic job offers are for positions in California. Massachusetts comes in second, representing about 10 percent of job offers.

“We’ve heard a lot of anecdotes about people leaving the country or going to California,” said Aaron Levine, a Ph.D. candidate in public affairs at Princeton who focuses on science and technology issues. “We wanted to provide at least some hard data.”

That hard data is based on surveys of 378 stem-cell researchers and 1,029 other medical researchers around the country. The study found that stem-cell researchers were 1.6 times more likely than other medical researchers to have gotten a job offer in the past year. They were 5.3 times more likely to have received an offer from outside the country, and 7.5 times more likely to have offers for jobs both in the United States and abroad.

“The data presented here indicate that many stem cell scientists are considering moves to California, and suggest that resolution of the ongoing litigation blocking distribution of the Proposition 71 funding may trigger significant migration to the state,” writes Levine in his conclusion.

Voters passed Proposition 71 in November 2004 to provide $3 billion for stem-cell research. While it appears that Proposition 71 will survive numerous legal challenges, the money still is tied up in the courts. On Thursday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered the state to lend $150 million to the California’s stem-cell institute so that it could begin distributing research money. The announcement came one day after President George W. Bush vetoed a bill that would have expanded federal support of stem-cell research.

Levine’s findings are backed up by California’s stem-cell-research institutions, which, in recent months, have been boasting of the talent they have been able to attract. In February, Institute for Stem Cell and Tissue Biology at the University of California, San Francisco, announced it had recruited three sought-after young researchers from the likes of Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

However, Levine notes that the report doesn’t prove that Proposition 71 is causing the migration. However, it “strongly implies that policy played a role,” he said, particularly in contrast to states like Michigan. The University of Michigan’s Center for Stem Cell Biology has lost several researchers in the wake of bills that limit research, which were passed by religious conservatives.

“It’s no surprise that stem-cell researchers are going where the money is,” said Jesse Reynolds, program director at the Center for Genetics and Society. Reynolds has been one of the biggest critics of Proposition 71. He said that he supports stem-cell research, but said that the campaign was sold on false promises of huge financial returns directly to the state.

Senator Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, noted that California has been attracting top stem-cell researchers since long before Proposition 71 passed in 2004. Arnold Kriegstein, director of the UCSF Institute, came in 2003 from Columbia University. Larry Goldstein of the University of California, San Diego, arrived from Harvard in 1993.

“I think Prop. 71 has certainly had an impact,” said Ortiz. “But remember, Prop. 71 has yet to put out a penny of research money.”

Ortiz sponsored a successful bill in 2002, SB 253, which explicitly legalized stem-cell research in California. She said the bill was inspired by two events. The more well known was President George W. Bush’s August 2001 decree that limited federally funded stem-cell research to “existing lines.” The second was a subsequent attempt by Senator Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, to pass a bill that would criminalize not only stem-cell research, but also U.S. citizens seeking stem-cell therapies in other countries. Ortiz said it was important to take strong action in order to make sure the nation’s stem-cell researchers did not all flee to stem-cell hot spots overseas, such as Korea, Singapore, and the United Kingdom.

“California has played an important role in preventing international migration,” Levine said. “Given a choice, most scientists would prefer to stay in the country.”

More recently, Ortiz has become known for her battles with California’s top stem-cell official, Robert Klein, over her efforts to increase government oversight of the state’s new stem-cell agency. Klein was the main force behind Proposition 71 and is now chairman of the Independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Klein noted that the two other states with a disproportionate amount of stem-cell jobs were New Jersey and Massachusetts, which have pledged $390 million and $100 million, respectively. He also said that even without the Proposition 71 money, researchers in California have access to $200 million in mostly private funding.

“You see a tremendous disparity between states that have supportive legislation and states that have stable, long-term sources of funding,” Klein said.

UCSF’s Kriegstein said that Proposition 71 could prove to be a tremendous boon to researchers. But, in the meantime, he said they have been ramping up with private money, much of it from high-tech sources. This includes $5 million from Intel co-founder Andy Grove and $16 million from Ray Dolby, founder of Dolby Labs.

Such aggressive fund raising is necessary, partially because Bush’s “existing line” policy is making it more expensive for them to do stem-cell research, even without federal money, Kriegstein said. They generally are barred from using equipment and buildings paid for with National Institutes of Health money for research, forcing them to develop new facilities.

“I can be done–provided you want to scrupulously account for every single expense,” Kriegstein said. “We decided that would be a nightmare to do.”

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