February 19, 2010

State funding for stem cell research at issue again

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 Andy Rosen
Andy@MarylandReporter.com

House and Senate committees appear ready to renew the annual tug-of-war over the controversial state spending on stem cell research.

Gov. Martin O’Malley has proposed to give the program $12.4 million for grants to research institutions and private companies. That is only about half the amount the program got at its peak three years ago, and advocates are concerned about the effectiveness of the continually declining funding.

“Is this a long-term commitment, or is this the beginning of the end?” asked Dan Gincel, who heads the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund. He said the life sciences industry might begin to question the viability of the program if cuts continue.

Gincel, who works for the quasi-public Maryland Technology Development Corp. (TEDCO), made his comments at a budget hearing by the House Education and Economic Development Subcommittee Thursday.

The House is more likely to keep money in the program than is the Senate. The stem cell research grants are typically one of the toughest items to negotiate between the two chambers.

Subcommittee Chair John Bohanan, D-St. Mary’s, said he expects a similar dynamic this year.

Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, chair of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the program, said he expects his chamber will move to cut funding for the program next year.

“Traditionally, the House has been more aggressive than we have,” he said. “I don’t see as much money probably going out as it did last year.”

O’Malley is looking to put $500,000 more in the program next year than there is in the current budget. His mid-year round of budget cuts took $3 million reduction from the fund.

Legislative analysts have recommended that the state cut stem cell funding to $6.7 million to save money next year, a move that advocates immediately opposed.

But Wednesday’s hearing also illuminated a philosophical debate over whether the state should pay for stem cells derived from human embryos, a method some see as morally wrong.

Nancy Paltell of the Maryland Catholic Conference said lawmakers should be judicious with cuts to the program. She believes research based on cells from living adults would be more immediately effective, and will have a more significant economic impact.

“It just so happens that what’s working the best also happens to be the method that doesn’t have any moral issues,” Paltell said.

Overall, TEDCO believes that the stem cell program is having a big economic impact on the state. It bases some of its claims on a study by the Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group. It found that stem cell grants awarded in 2008 accounted for a total of $71 million in business sales, and 514 jobs paying a total of $34 million.

But in a report released Thursday, legislative auditors criticized TEDCO’s supervision of the stem cell grants and called for tighter control. During the hearing, agency officials said they have agreed with auditors on better supervision for the grants, and lawmakers didn’t push the issue.