SAN FRANCISCO - An upcoming ballot initiative in California may pave a path for that state's scientists to better direct their stem cell research.

A proposal to allocate $3 billion over 10 years to such research will go before voters in November. If it passes, the bond-backed bill could circumvent current federal limitations on the use of human embryonic stem cells. A group of speakers discussed that topic and others Monday during a first-day panel session at the Biotechnology Industry Organization's 2004 International Convention.

"We need to be able to explore fundamental stem cell biology in an unfettered way," said Evan Snyder of the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, Calif. "We don't know which of the stem cells to use. For example, for the neural system, do we want to teach an embryonic stem cell to become a neural stem cell - in other words, a secondary neural stem cell? Or do want to take it directly from the brain? Or do we want to take them from adults? We're going to have to compare the cells head to head in order to answer these questions."

But such studies remain limited by government regulations on the number of cell lines currently available for research in the U.S. At present, 19 federally sanctioned lines are offered, a figure critics point to as a hindrance to furthering research.

"The Bush White House position on stem cell research, which limits the creation of new embryonic stem cell lines, is under fire as never before," said Daniel Perry, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research in Washington. "Majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are pushing hard for a reform of those policies."

Indeed, a government representative on the panel conceded that more lines should be made available for research, in addition to other related areas in need of attention.

"We need to create career development cadres at our academic centers for individuals doing this kind of research," said James Battey, the chairman of the stem cell task force for the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. "We need to establish more standardized cell culture conditions. We need to expand the number of cell lines eligible for federal funding that are available to the research community, because we already know that there is functional diversity among these cell lines."

Of course, the political controversy can obscure the positive research coming out of labs in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, where additional stem cell investigations are moving forward in the UK and Asia. Snyder displayed images from rat experiments demonstrating the regenerative power of stem cells as therapeutics in improving neurodegenerative diseases and spinal cord injuries.

Positive findings like that, indicative of the potential stem cell therapy might offer humans, have caught the eyes of the drug industry. Still, pharmaceutical and biotech companies have not invested heavily in stem cells for the most part.

"Most of us look at this as a world of science, as a world still with fairly deep research," said Steven Burrill, president of Burrill & Co. in San Francisco. "Those of us in the capital side of the business are interested in building companies, and companies have to find a pathway to a patient. And we still have some very basic science to get done. So this is a difficult place for the [venture capital] world to be in today."

Not far down the road, California-based researchers could find themselves with access to funding for stem cell studies if voters approve the ballot issue. The current federal administration will face its own test that month. But even if there is a shift in state and federal government policies, most note that stem cell research remains in early stages.

"I always like to say that even the dumbest stem cell is still smarter than the smartest neurobiologist," Snyder half-joked.

Nevertheless, their potential seems to offer an upside worthy of expanded investigation - and controversial or not, the future of stem cell research will continue to grab attention.

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