Stem cell funds under scrutiny

The Baltimore Sun

Scientists and advocates pleaded with lawmakers yesterday to fulfill Gov. Martin O'Malley's request for $23 million in stem cell research funding, fearing that the state's uncertain financial future will lead the legislature to make good on a perennial threat to cut the program.

Independent budget analysts recommend eliminating the funding for the fiscal year that begins in July, arguing that money is being allocated to Maryland's stem cell program faster than it can be used. They have suggested trimming the program before, but this year, lawmakers are scouring the budget for $200 million in spending reductions on top of cuts and tax increases they approved during a special session late last year.

Officials with the state's stem cell research fund said that even a one-year funding hiatus would hurt the program, which provides grants to potentially life-saving research. John Kellermann, who is suffering from Parkinson's disease, told a legislative panel that families are counting on a cure or better treatment for a number of maladies that could be borne out by the research.

"I'm tired of fighting this fight," said Kellermann, president of the nonprofit Maryland Families for Stem Cell Research who has testified in Annapolis for funding in each of the past four years. "I just plead with you, please keep this funding in place and keep alive the hopes of myself and thousands of other Marylanders."

Funding for the research, including the use of embryonic stem cells, has been a battle since the program was established in Maryland in 2006. Some lawmakers said they support stem cell research but might be hard-pressed to continue funding at the same level as last year's, given the budgetary constraints.

"We are looking for money because of the situation we find ourselves in," said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Baltimore County Democrat and chairman of the subcommittee with purview over the funding. "The question is whether we believe they can use that amount of money in that period of time."

Former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, who has been lobbying for stem cell research in recent years, said he called several lawmakers this week to urge them to keep next year's proposed funding intact.

"They do have some difficult problems fiscally, and I understand that," he said, "but I just think this is so important and can help so many people."

The Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission announced last week that it had received 122 applications for more than $62 million, nearly three times the amount that was budgeted for the current fiscal year.

Maryland and other states have provided funding for the science since President Bush restricted federal funding for stem cell research in 2001. Before states made funding available, researchers who wanted to use stem cells derived from embryos depended mostly on private grants or were limited to a few stem cell lines that qualified for federal money.

The debate took a turn in November when scientists in Japan and at the University of Wisconsin announced that they had converted human skin cells into stem cells like the ones found in embryos.

Nancy E. Paltell of the Maryland Catholic Conference testified yesterday that the research eliminated any reason to destroy embryos for stem cell studies. She advocated cutting state funding for research.

"Medical advancements and respect for human life can go hand in hand," Paltell said.

Linda Powers, chairman of the state's stem cell commission, said other states have promised much higher levels of funding. California has committed $3 billion over 10 years, and New York has set aside $600 million for stem cell work. Continued funding in Maryland is essential to attracting and retaining the best scientists and to a robust biotechnology industry, proponents said.

Maryland Technology Development Corp., a quasi-governmental body known as TEDCO, is in charge of distributing the stem cell grants. A budget analyst said that funds are being appropriated to the agency at a faster rate than the cash flow dictates, partly because it took time to draft program regulations. Once funding applications are submitted, they must go through an independent scientific peer review.

TEDCO officials acknowledged that $15 million budgeted in fiscal 2007 wasn't allocated to scientists until the next fiscal year, when $23 million more was appropriated. But they said they have established guidelines to make the process more efficient, and they noted that grants are paid out over two to three years so that any remaining money in the fund has been earmarked for those grants.

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican whose wife has Parkinson's, said he is opposed to embryonic stem cell research but supports the adult stem cell studies. At the same time, he said, the state faces a "budget crisis."

"We'll have to look at this more carefully," he said.

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