Hard Cell

By Gretchen Voss | Boston Magazine |

With the herky-jerky physicality of a man who has spent his life stooped over a microscope, Dr. Robert Lanza picks his way through the cramped hallway to his lab, a dingy, gray space exploding with high-tech clutter. It was here, in this blip of a startup biotech office park in Worcester, that human embryonic stem cells began their rise to the forefront of the national consciousness.

Lanza reddens with evident pride and his voice goes up an octave as he speaks about the work he and his fellow scientists at Advanced Cell Technology have managed to accomplish. “We were the first to show that therapeutic cloning works and to clone a human embryo,” he says. “And we were the first to create embryonic stem cells through parthenogenesis.” Lanza and his colleagues, he boasts, even got into “that Guinness book” for cloning the first organ.

Then his features harden into sharp relief. “Until a few weeks ago, we've been struggling just to make payroll,” Lanza says. “Everyone says, 'Leave it to the private sector. We don't want to use taxpayers' money [to fund stem-cell research].' But do you want to know what happens when you leave it to the private sector? I just got cartridges for my fax machine last week. It was empty for about a year. We just don't have the resources.” As a result, instead of throwing himself into research that could save the 3,000 people, by his estimate, who die every day from the diseases he says stem cells could cure, Lanza and his fellow scientists spend a lot of time trying to raise money.

The state of California has decided not to leave things to the private sector. When voters there agreed to lavish $3 billion of taxpayers' money on stem-cell research, it put Robert Lanza and all the other top stem-cell scientists in Massachusetts in a tough spot: stay here and continue to struggle, or head west. “I was born in Boston. I love it here. It took everything I had to get the facility to stay here for right now,” Lanza says. “But what's going to happen next year or the following year? If there's more money for the grants in California and there's no incentive to be here, the company's going to relocate.”

Along with scientists like Lanza would go Massachusetts' coveted preeminence in biomedical research. “The truth is, California and Massachusetts are the two leading areas in the country for biotech, and they're in a race,” says Lanza. “And we've missed the boat. We have Harvard, we have MIT. We have the talent. We need the state to step up.”

But bogged down by political shortsightedness, religious roadblocks, and plain old arrogance, Massachusetts has so far punted on its support for research on the potentially revolutionary applications of stem cells. At stake is nothing less than this state's future as a biotechnology capital — and the significant economic advantages that come with it.

Only a few years ago, most people had never heard of stem cells. Lanza's company changed that when it announced that it had cloned the first human embryo. Around the same time, President George W. Bush, citing “the need to protect life in all its phases,” declared that the federal government would pay for research only on the 60 human-embryonic-stem-cell lines then thought to be in existence. (The actual number turned out to be less than 20.) Though there are no restrictions on adult stem cells, the cells found in embryos hold the most medical promise.

Isolated from human embryos that are only a few days old or from fetal tissue older than eight weeks, stem cells have an unlimited ability to divide and can morph into more specialized cells, such as red blood cells or brain cells. In the future, these cells might help bypass immune rejection after a transplant or help treat a disease. “Embryonic stem cells are the most exciting tools we have for transplantational medicine,” says Dr. Rudolf Jaenisch, a founding member of MIT's Whitehead Institute and one of the world's foremost researchers in therapeutic cloning. Jaenisch would love to work with these cells, but his research (like that of many scientists) is underwritten by the federal government, meaning he can use only the government-authorized lines of stem cells. He calls this “totally insufficient.”

The Bush administration's stem-cell policy has left many scientists infuriated and frustrated. Government funding for research “is part of what has made American science and medicine the envy of the world,” says Dr. George Daley, an internationally prominent stem-cell researcher at Children's Hospital. “But here we are at the dawn of an exploding new field, and we're being forced by financial constraints to do only certain types of research and not others. That's challenging to accept as a scientist.”

Many scientists have chosen not to accept it. Those at Harvard, for starters. A global leader in stem-cell research, the university announced last year that it would form the Harvard Stem Cell Institute to bring together Harvard's intellectual resources and infrastructure-hospitals, schools, and researchers-and do an end run around presidential policy. It is raising money for therapeutic cloning, which government funding can't legally be used to underwrite, and creating new lines of stem cells for use by anyone who asks.

The Harvard effort, like stem-cell research in general, is still in its infancy, and its success has yet to be measured. “I think it's a great idea, but a monumental challenge to actually pull together,” says David Williams, a consultant at MedPharma Partners, which advises the healthcare field. And while Harvard hopes to raise tens of millions of dollars from nongovernmental sources, researchers say the demand for that money is sure to far exceed the supply. “My understanding is about 80 percent of the applications aren't going to be funded,” says Daley, who wants to work on human-embryonic-stem-cell cloning to treat blood diseases in children.

Still, Harvard at least seemed poised to remain among the top stem-cell research centers in the country. But then Californians, with the support of their Republican governor, voted for that $3 billion initiative providing nearly $300 million of tax-free bonds every year for 10 years for grants to carry out stem-cell research. Other states, fearing a brain drain and hoping to get in on the economic action, have responded in kind. Wisconsin plans to spend $750 million in state and private money for stem-cell research. New Jersey has provided $11.5 million to open a stem-cell institute. Illinois has proposed a ballot initiative that would give out $1 billion in research grants. Even Texas is mobilizing to support stem-cell research.

“It's really kind of like the Wild West right now,” says Eve Herold, public education manager for the Stem Cell Research Foundation. “For the duration of the Bush administration, it's going to be up to states to provide support and funding.”

Back in Massachusetts, there's a lot of gloom and doom. “It could be the beginning of the end of our preeminence,” says Lanza. “I worry about that for the development of our local economy,” says David Scadden, faculty co-director of the Harvard institute. “The example of what happened with high tech is one we have to be very sensitive to and be sure we don't reproduce with life science.”

As California starts to hand out money, scientists here fear it will also poach top talent. “[California] has been quite open that they want to recruit top people away from other places, and Harvard is right at the top of their target list,” says Charles Jennings, the Harvard institute's director. Ask any top scientist and he or she will tell you that the offers have already started coming in. “It's going to affect our ability to recruit junior scientists,” says Daley. “It's a really, really big concern.”

This, of course, will have a huge impact on the state's biotechnology industry. Not immediately, says Daley, but 5 or 10 years down the road, when the results of this research begin to be commercialized. “Big companies like Novartis and Pfizer are moving into Cambridge. Why would they do this? Because of the proximity to the universities,” says Jaenisch. “If [the research] all goes to California, I wonder what these companies will decide.” Adds Lanza: “This is a very critical time in stem-cell research. It's when you get the patents and the intellectual property. And once that intellectual property is given, [the patent holders] will control this field for the next couple of decades.”

For these reasons, Massachusetts scientists are begging the state to do something. Anything. “Unless we have a real statement saying that we are willing to put funds behind this research, Boston will not be the center of stem-cell research anymore,” says Jaenisch.

So far, there has been no such statement. And if the past year of political infighting, lobbying, and hubris is any indication, Massachusetts is sure to lose the research race to California.

Twice last year the state Senate passed legislation that, while failing to earmark any money, at least expressed support for stem-cell research. It died both times in the House. “We did receive communication from the conservative group of the Catholic Church with regard to the issue of life, and that really concerned people,” says state Senator Cynthia Creem, the legislation's sponsor. Indeed, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference lobbied hard against the legislation, says Daniel Avila, its associate director for policy and research. “We have opposed these bills as going too far, and we will continue to do so.”

Then there's the governor. Mitt Romney supports stem-cell research, his spokeswoman, Shawn Feddeman, says. But he declared last month that he's against creating human embryos for this purpose. Daley worries about what effect Romney's further political intentions will have on this debate. “Here within Massachusetts this decision is going to be influenced more by the federal perspective than it might otherwise be if we didn't have a governor who had nationwide ambitions,” he says.

There are plenty of other obstacles to getting meaningful legislation moving. There's ignorance, even among supporters of stem-cell research. “On the government end, there's no one who knows this stuff at all,” says Peter Koutoujian, House chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care and sponsor of two stem-cell bills submitted for the current session. For his part, Koutoujian seemed unaware when told that Wisconsin has pledged massive amounts of money for stem-cell research.

There's been a lot of talk, to be sure. In his inaugural speech in January, Senate President Robert Travaglini called for the passage of a stem-cell research bill. “This issue has languished for too long,” he said. “In the eyes of many, we have lost ground in our competition with states such as California and New Jersey. With swift action during this legislative session, we can regain a competitive edge.” Last month, Senate leaders filed yet another bill supporting embryonic-stem-cell research, but providing no money for it. “We're not putting our money where our mouths are,” Koutoujian says. Critics immediately vowed to fight the bill.

Asked if the absence of financial support for stem-cell research puts Massachusetts at a disadvantage, Creem — also a sponsor of this latest legislation — responds testily, “No, because there are plenty of reasons why people want to live here. I mean, Massachusetts is one of the most desirable places to live. We have world-class institutions, we have hospitals here.”

It's that attitude that may be our downfall. Asks Jaenisch: “What would you do if you knew [stem-cell research] will be a big problem here and you knew you can do things in California that wouldn't be possible in Massachusetts?”

Back in his overflowing office in Worcester, Robert Lanza launches into a story that makes him visibly sad to tell. One day, he says, a policeman came to visit him shortly after he published a paper showing that human embryonic stem cells could be used to create retinal cells that might help cure macular degeneration-a leading cause of blindness. The cop's son had a retinal degenerative disease and was slowly slipping into darkness.

“I was almost in tears by the time he was done,” says Lanza. “And I'm thinking, we've had those cells frozen away for nine months, and because we didn't have $20,000, they're just sitting there, and his kid is going to be blind in three years.” He jumps out of his chair. “There's no reason for it. None.”

But there is a reason, and it's money. Lanza, too, has had an offer of millions of dollars to start up a stem-cell research center – if he moved to California.

He has finally closed on some other private funding that will keep him in fax cartridges — and in Worcester — at least for the near future. “If Massachusetts passes this legislation and gives some funding, I know our investors would be comfortable staying here,” he says. “If it doesn't pass, the future is more uncertain.” And so are the coming days of his colleagues in academia. “We have arguably the most creative and talented biomedical community in the world,” he says. “To lose our stem-cell scientists, or to not fund them and have them watch this unfold on TV rather than in their labs, is just sad.”

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