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Friday, October 1, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

With the right leadership, state can be a biotech hub

Scientists specializing in human embryonic stem-cell research must be getting chafe burns from constantly bumping up against Bush administration restrictions.

California, home to 50 percent of the biotech research in the U.S., has launched an initiative to spend $3 billion on embryonic stem-cell research.

During a fellowship last year at Stanford University, I witnessed up-close California's innovative spirit and embrace of emerging technologies. Now I'm back in Washington wondering if we have the will to rebel against religious right-inspired restrictions on science.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi doesn't appear to possess the imagination or vision to seriously address this question. At a recent gubernatorial debate, Rossi countered talk of state-funded stem-cell research by saying this type of science is already legal in Washington. But the former state senator from Sammamish deliberately avoided the key issue, limitations on federally funded stem-cell research.

Human stem-cell research using private money faces no limitations. But hamstringing federally funded research discourages laboratories, particularly at institutions dependent on federal money such as the University of Washington.

Irv Weissman, director of Stanford's Institute for Cancer and Stem Cell Biology, says the limitations on federal funding are chilling to post-doctoral students eyeing stem-cell research as a career.

Rather than say outright whether he opposes embryonic stem-cell research, Rossi delves into supposed obstacles. California is too far ahead of the game for Washington to have a chance of competing, he says. Hmmm. We've done rather well competing in aviation, shipping, wine and fruit production.

"Anyone who makes excuses and says we're too small and can't compete, they're going to think small and not compete," says Seattle biotech legend Leroy Hood.

OK, Rossi supporters complain, the stem-cell debate is a wedge issue conjured up by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Christine Gregoire. Wrong. Embryonic stem-cell research became a wedge issue when it was erroneously linked with abortion. The results are federal restrictions and threats of further encroachments upon science by politics.

California's initiative brings human stem-cell research to the state level. New Jersey has passed a law creating a state-supported stem-cell research facility.

This is just the beginning as regions vie for domination in biotech and biomedicine. There is plenty of room for innovative forward-thinkers. The National Institutes of Health spent just $25 million — out of a $2 billion budget — on studies involving embryonic stem cells.

Scientists are a pragmatic lot. They aren't likely to picket for public investment in stem-cell research. But that doesn't mean they wouldn't gravitate toward it if encouraged. We shouldn't create a brain drain, either to the world leaders in stem-cell research such as France, Great Britain and South Korea, or to California.

Like any emerging innovation, embryonic stem-cell research will create jobs and economic opportunity. If the California initiative passes, there will be an immediate presence of 20 or 30 new biotech start-ups, each backed by loads of venture capital. Out of that gold rush will come one or two important discoveries. Maybe we learn the secret to regenerating damaged brain tissue or recreating a pancreas. Meanwhile, billions flow into payrolls and state coffers.

Critics will slap me out of my reverie to point out that there are equally pressing needs for biotech. For instance, how about the state doing more to assist the commercialization of technology? Or provide incentives to attract biotech companies from other states and keep the ones we have?

Fair questions. Some of that is already going on. On Lake Union, a biotech incubator called Accelerator nurtures start-ups through infancy stages. More of that should be spurred by state efforts. But I'm concerned about a governor who would close the door on scientific opportunities before we see what's inside. On human embryonic stem-cell research, Rossi slams the door on my fingers.

Guided by the right leaders, Washington can be a biotech center. It can be the place of discovery for deveoping therapies for diseases like cancer, neuro-degenerative disorders and diabetes. Thanks to the late Sen. Warren Magnuson, we have a medical research center at the University of Washington that is leagues above everywhere else.

We could spend less than half of California's proposed investment and it would still be enough to signal to scientists and venture capitalists that we take our role in this arena seriously. This region has already been singled out as a likely hub for biotech and biomedicine. We can take advantage of this economic opportunity or let it be crushed under the weight of politics.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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