UR, RIT make a case for stem cell funding

Lauren Stanforth
Staff writer

(February 9, 2006) — The University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology are among the 17 institutions in New York that have collaborated on a report asking state legislators to fund embryonic stem cell research.

The 44-page report released Wednesday, "New York and Stem Cell Research: A Scientific, Policy and Economic Analysis," says New York could lose billions of dollars' worth of biotechnology companies and health-care savings if it does not put money toward embryonic stem cell research — which someday might cure diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Thus far, California, Connecticut and Illinois have approved funding to advance embryonic stem cell research, which involves extracting the building-block cells of the body from days-old embryos to grow tissue and organ cells. The federal government put funding restrictions on embryonic research in 2001, essentially cutting most funding for further advances.

The report says New York's people and economy cannot afford to let other states take the lead in investigating cures. Biomedical research and biotechnology is a $48 billion industry in New York. And the state already spends $94 billion on health care every year — a large portion of which goes to treat those with chronic illnesses, the report said.

"This is an industry that can grow, and it's exactly what we should be focused on in terms of building a stronger New York," said University of Rochester President Joel Seligman. UR has 18 stem cell researchers currently working with animal and adult tissue and 200 other employees connected to the research.

The University of Rochester, along with the Center for Governmental Research, did a small study last summer on the scientific and economic effects of stem cell research on the university. But Seligman said he spoke with many of New York's largest research institutions to get them involved with the position paper for state legislators. Institutions represented include Roswell Park Cancer Center in Buffalo, Syracuse and Cornell universities and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Rochester Institute of Technology President Albert J. Simone said his university got involved because it trains many biologists, chemists and mathematicians involved in biotechnology. "Why prepare people for jobs in other states? We'd like to keep the best and brightest in the state, especially in Rochester," he said.

The state Assembly passed a bill in January that calls for funding a state institute for stem cell research with $300 million over two years. But the Senate has not yet addressed the topic.

Embryonic research has been enveloped in controversy nationwide because the stem cells are taken from days-old embryos. Researchers say embryonic stem cells have more potential than adult stem cells because of their regenerative properties.

State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, Rensselaer County, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he supports a $200 million proposal for stem cell research, but it was unclear whether that research would include embryos or just adult stem cells.

A representative from Gov. George Pataki's press office could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but state Health Commissioner Dr. Antonia Novello said Tuesday that the Pataki administration is solely focused on funding stem cell research on umbilical cord blood, considered adult stem cell research. Pataki has added $250,000 in his budget for a cord blood center at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse.

Meanwhile, groups such as the New York State Catholic Conference have been lobbying state senators against funding embryonic research.

"We strongly object on a moral level to the destruction of human beings at any stage of development for research," said Dennis Poust, spokesman for the state Catholic Conference.

State Sen. James Alesi, R-Perinton, said he is in full support of funding embryonic research and expects an agreement on stem cell funding from the state Legislature this year.

"I'm looking at the bigger picture, and the bigger picture is that it's going to happen no matter where it's done in the world," Alesi said of embryonic research.