Washington has effectively put a lid on federal efforts to advance embryonic stem-cell research. But pressure from scientists eager to expand their knowledge, special interest groups searching for new cures for diseases, and those who see a lucrative new biomedical industry has found a relief valve: the nation's 50 statehouses.
Stem-cell initiatives flowing from legislatures and governors' offices continue to gather steam, including some that permit controversial human cloning to generate embryonic stem cells. In response, opponents of such research, who find it ethically unacceptable, have also stepped up their activity in states - with some success.
There has been an "explosion" of state activity since 2000-01, says Alissa Johnson, who tracks genetics issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). An August 2001 Bush administration mandate to restrict embryonic stem-cell research to a few existing stem-cell lines has "created a state-by-state [stem-cell] movement unprecedented in medical research," wrote Paul Sanberg, director of the Center for Aging and Brain Repair at the University of South Florida, Tampa, in October's issue of The Scientist.
In 2005, states considered at least 180 bills or resolutions on stem-cell research, according to the NCSL. A dozen states carried over legislation into this year, and other states will have new bills introduced.
Missouri is being watched closely. Advocates there are gathering signatures to put a measure on the November ballot that would ensure that stem-cell research remained legal, including therapeutic cloning, which destroys very early human embryos, called blastocysts, in the process. The medical and business communities generally back the initiative, while groups such as the Missouri Catholic Conference and Missouri Right to Life oppose it. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly described the Missouri ballot initiative.]
In Illinois, a bill would put a proposal to spend $1 billion on stem-cell research on the November ballot. In Maryland, a measure passed a Senate committee that would provide $125 million for stem-cell research. Gov. Robert Ehrlich has offered an alternative in which $20 million would be allotted for research on either embryonic or less controversial adult stem-cell research. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified who passed the stem-cell research measure in Maryland.]
Some states have restricted research. Last year Indiana banned human cloning for any purpose, including to generate stem cells, but created a center to research adult stem cells, which are not derived from human embryos. A similar effort now is under way in Mississippi.
Governors have been active, too. In a speech last month, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, possibly with a presidential bid in mind, called for a repeal of a 2002 Iowa law that bans therapeutic cloning. And in Wisconsin, Gov. Jim Doyle - who earlier vetoed a bill that would have banned embryonic stem-cell research - called on the state to spend $5 million to recruit companies doing stem-cell research. These companies could add 100,000 new jobs in the state by 2015, he argued in his January state-of-the-state address.
Embryonic stem-cell advocates have pointed to California's $3 billion investment in stem-cell research, passed by voters in 2004, and urged their own states to keep up. But the Golden State's massive program - slowed by lawsuits and charged with a lack of transparency and accountability - has had trouble moving forward.
"That one has kind of come to a standstill," says David Prentice, a senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., which opposes embryonic stem-cell research.
Such a crazy quilt of state policies toward stem-cell research can create problems for scientists. "Biomedical research in general is an interstate activity involving collaboration among institutions," says Kathy Hudson, director of the Genetics & Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, "so this [state-by-state approach] is really making complicated the conduct of research."
But states are "jumping into the void," Ms. Hudson says. "The federal government is basically paralyzed. We're exactly where we were on stem-cell policy in 2001, when Bush made his pronouncement."
January's news that a supposed breakthrough in human cloning by South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-Suk had been faked may have also left state legislators more wary about how quickly embryonic stem-cell therapies can advance. "Hwang created some negative press," says John Hlinko, one of the founders of StemPAC, a national political action committee committed to advancing all forms of stem-cell research. But in the long view, Hudson says, the Hwang debacle hasn't altered the opinion that embryonic stem-cell therapies will be an option someday and that the country will need policies to guide what practices will or won't be allowed.
Right now, states are also performing their traditional role as testing grounds, she says. States can look at what others are doing and ask, "Did that work? ... [or] did that policy have glitches in it that we can learn from?" Where it is stimulating public discussion, Hudson says, "that has got to be a good thing."
"It's very much an educational and, in some sense, a PR debate going on right now," says Mr. Prentice, who travels widely to speak against embryonic stem-cell research. "It's going to be a tough fight."
A bill loosening restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research gained some momentum in Congress in 2005, including backing from Senate majority leader Bill Frist, but failed to pass.
"The federal government is the 800-pound gorilla," Mr. Hlinko says. "It's wonderful that states are trying to do this, but it's not a substitute for federal action."