BALTIMORE- Governor Robert L. Ehrlich on Wednesday showered more than $121 million in state spending on science, technology and biomedicine – including stem cell research – as he touted an investment he said will make Maryland’s biotech industry the top in the nation.
“We have the capacity to make it happen,” Ehrlich told an audience at Biopark, a research facility on the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
He said the funding, proposed as part of his 2007 fiscal budget, was necessary for Maryland to attract top researchers and companies.The most notable aspect of Ehrlich’s announcement was his embrace of stem cell research, which has in the past met with stiff resistance among many of the conservatives who support the governor.
“Everybody in this room knows this is a sensitive issue,” Ehrlich said. “It has become too politicized.” The governor said he would like to keep politics to a minimum in discussions over the issue, probably a difficult request in an election year in which Democrats, strong supporters of stem cell research, are already accusing him of doing an about-face.
For example, the office of Montgomery County excutive Doug Duncan, who is hoping to unseat Ehrlich in November, called the governor’s support of stem cell research part of “an extreme makeover” from “right wing ideologue to phony Election Year moderate,” according to the Associated Press.
But Ehrlich’s press conference in Baltimore went far beyond stem cell research.
Ehrlich also announced plans to fund several measures to improve science and technology education in Maryland.
These include building a $49-million-dollar complex dedicated to teacher education and technology at Salisbury University and over $18 million for building science classrooms in community colleges.
The funding for research and science education comes a week after Ehrlich proposed a $117 million increase in funding for Maryland’s university system.
Funding would also go to the East Baltimore Biotechnology Park and the Johns Hopkins University Shock Trauma Center.
Some $33 million would go to build a new research facility at Biopark and provide initial support for research there.
The facility, dubbed the Center for Regenerative Research, would focus on tissue regeneration, an area that holds promise for reversing paralysis and degenerative tissue diseases such as Parkinson’s and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
Ehrlich said the center would provide a venue for stem cell research, which only last year he kept at arm’s length when he made no visible effort to stop a threatened Republican filibuster of a Democratic proposal to fund embryonic stem cell research.
Many religious conservatives are opposed to use of embryonic stem cells, believing that life begins at conception and that it is immoral to destroy the ball of cells that composes an embryo by extracting the nucleus from cells in the ball.
But according to many researchers embryonic stem cells are fundamentally different than other cells and provided the greatest chance for medical breakthroughs in the near future.
“Embryonic stem cells are the most powerful tools,” said Dr. Douglass Kerr, a medical doctor and stem cell researcher at Johns Hopkins University, who was at a press conference Tuesday supporting a Democratic proposal on stem cell research.
Kerr said he has had success in his laboratory in reversing paralysis in rats.
“It’s a good time to be a rat in my laboratory,” he said.”Because they can walk again.
President Bush has opposed federal funding of embryonic stem cell, prompting states to take funding of the research into their own hands.
In late 2004, for example, California approved $3 billion in funds for stem cell research.
While he didn’t specify what type of stem cell research would be supported through the funding, or if embryonic stem cell research would be eligible, Ehrlich emphasized he was more interested in the ends of the research than the means.
“Our goal should be to direct money to the projects with the most promise for regenerative research breakthroughs,” he said.
Ehrlich’s proposal comes on the heels of an announcement Tuesday by Democratic legislators that they will try again this year to get a stem cell research funding bill passed.
The bill will be almost identical to the one Democrats proposed last year, according to Senator Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, who co-sponsored the legislation with Delegate Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg, D-Baltimore City.
The bill provides $25 million in research funding, specifically for embryonic stem cell research.
Hollinger said she hopes introducing the bill at the beginning of the session will help its chances of being passed.
It is urgent, she said, for Maryland to begin investing in stem cell research to compete with other states.
Rosenberg agreed, adding that Maryland has already lost scientists to other states because of lack of funding.
He worried that Ehrlich’s proposal alone wouldn’t provide enough funds for embryonic stem cell research.
“Embryonic stem cell research has extraordinary potential for addressing disease and injury,” he said. “It also has extraordinary potential for contributing to this state’s economy.”