Mass. Governor Deval Patrick Announces $1 Billion Plan to Advance Stem Cell Work

In the most sweeping policy announcement of his new administration, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick proposed Tuesday $1 billion in funding for scientific research, a package designed to cement the state's reputation as a global powerhouse of medicine and biotechnology.

The 10-year initiative, which has won the endorsement of legislative leaders, would fund academic research and start-up companies, as well as create a stem cell bank at the University of Massachusetts for newly created lines of embryonic stem cells, a controversial arena of research currently barred from federal funding.

"We want Massachusetts to provide the global platform for bringing your innovations from the drawing board to the market, from inspiration to commercialization, from ideas to cures," said Patrick, who unveiled the package at an international biotech conference in Boston. "Researchers all over the world will be using stem cells that are truly made in Massachusetts."

The policy represents a marked shift in philosophy from the Romney administration, which injected language into a 2005 stem cell bill that would have barred scientists from using embryonic stem cells cloned for research purposes. The Legislature rebuffed Romney and passed a bill endorsing stem cell research, but provided no direct funding.

Patrick was joined on the platform by Senate President Therese Murray, who wore a yellow bracelet in memory of family members who have died of cancer, and House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi. Both pledged support for the proposal.

Aides said the administration will file legislation to begin laying groundwork for financing and administering the new program later this year. Over 10 years, the state would issue $500 million in bonds to pay for capital investments at public institutions and other facilities. It would also spend $25 million a year on direct research grants and offer $25 million annually in tax credits to biotech companies that promise to create jobs in Massachusetts.

The administration, however, has not determined how much money would be dedicated to different areas of research or how much would be available to the private sector.

According to Jay Gonzales, the state's assistant secretary for capital finance, the money would be funneled through a reconstituted version of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, which was set up last year to distribute $10 million in life-science funding. Under Patrick's plan, the center's five-member board would be enlarged to handle its increased responsibilities. It was unclear Tuesday night whether any of the $10 million has yet been distributed.

The University of Massachusetts stands to collect more than $100 million from the Patrick plan. Jack Wilson, UMass president, said he expects the stem cell bank, which would be housed at the UMass Medical School in Worcester, to cost $66 million. The first of its kind in the country, it would allow researchers from across the country to work on each others' stem cell lines. Eight hospitals and universities, including Harvard, have agreed to send their stem cell lines there.

"It's almost a lending library," said Wilson, referring to the stem cell bank. "This is a triumph for the governor to have gotten all these proprietary players to the table - industry, private universities, public universities - where we put aside our differences. ... This is what really distinguishes this proposal from anything else in the United States."

Another $38 million would go toward a research center to make useful drugs from RNA interference, or RNAi, a new laboratory technique that scientists can use to turn off specific genes. UMass professor Craig Mello shared a Nobel Prize in medicine last year for helping to discover RNAi in 1998. Less than a decade later, drugs based on this technology are being tested in humans.

In recent years, other states have invested significant taxpayer money in drawing medical research, including California's $3 billion stem cell bond issue and Florida's $1 billion campaign to persuade prestigious research institutes to locate campuses there.

While Patrick's overall package is smaller than California $3 billion voter initiative, the California experience may contain a lesson. The plan was attacked by opponents, and the money was long held up in court and only recently began to be distributed.

The Massachusetts plan has a broader approach, focusing on RNAi as well as stem cell research and other new technologies, although Patrick's plan did not enumerate which ones.

Despite its already high debt level, Massachusetts should be able to foot the bill for this 10-year investment, according to Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation, a government watchdog group.

"At $100 million a year, it's not a huge amount of money," Widmer said. "But that's $100 million that can't be spent elsewhere. It's a question of priorities. From my perspective, this is an economic bet. The jury is still out."

Some said that Patrick's plan interferes with the free market.

"This is a completely inappropriate direction to be taking," said David Tuerck, director of the Beacon Hill Institute, a conservative think tank. "It's an industrial policy where the governor gets in the business of picking winners and losers and trying to do what private capital markets are ... already doing quite well."

House minority leader Bradley Jones, Republican of North Reading, wondered why Patrick would propose such an expensive plan at the same time he is grappling with a budget that is out of balance.