Stemming the Tide

Texas' stance on stem cell research could have economic effects

Late last week, lawmakers in Austin briefly considered seven bills relating to stem cell research, which could result in treatments for diseases such as Parkinson's or juvenile diabetes—and voted to table all but one of them.

The one bill that could still find its way to the House floor this session would severely restrict the use of state money for stem cell research.

"It leaves the impression with the scientific community that Texas does not encourage this sort of research," says Joe Brown, vice president of Texans for Advancement of Medical Research, a stem cell advocacy group.

Brown says this could affect the state's economy. A recent study points out that while states such as California have passed legislation to fund stem cell research (to the tune of $300 million a year for 10 years), Texas has gone the other way, attempting to pass laws that would essentially criminalize it. If that doesn't change, the state could lose out on billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs.

The recent study, authored by two University of North Texas economics professors, concluded that Texas' biotechnology industry is on track to grow to $30.4 billion within seven years, but it could be twice as big if the state did more to promote stem cell research.

"If regenerative medicine is the next big thing, don't we want to be a player?" Bud Weinstein, one of the study's authors, asked at a news conference last week.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research say no. Extracting stem cells from embryos—one means of acquiring the cells—means destroying an embryo. To some people who believe life begins at conception, that's akin to murder. Both President Bush, who has promised to veto for the second time a stem cell bill currently before the U.S. Senate, and Governor Rick Perry are against embryonic stem cell research.

"Although the governor is always looking for ways to expand and promote Texas' economy, he hesitates at what cost," spokeswoman Krista Moody recently told the Associated Press. "There are other opportunities for us to bring money into our economy."

Brown believes regenerative medicine is the future. Already, he says, doctors can regenerate human heart, brain, lung and many other human cell types. And while so far those cells are limited to petri dishes, it won't be long before they are ready for use in actual treatments, meaning a new heart could be created, or the effects of Parkinson's reversed.

When this happens—a shift toward regenerative medicine, as Brown calls it—Texas will be left behind. Already top scientists and researchers in the field have been recruited to other states, he says. As these scientists leave, the Texas medical and research infrastructure will diminish. "The real message here," Brown says, "is Texas is going to pay the price if we don't do something positive."

 
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