WASHINGTON, April 11 (UPI) -- Australia is hoping a collaboration involving a U.S. university could make it the global leader in stem cell research, but experts doubt that will happen any time soon.
"For now, I don't think you'll see a big shift, but if changes aren't made in a few years, I think you'll see it," Geoffrey Seiler, editor/analyst of the Bull Market Report, told United Press International.
"Particularly, if California loses the lawsuits over Proposition 71," Seiler added. The Proposition 71 program, which established $3 billion in state funding for stem cell research, has been held up by two lawsuits that allege it is unconstitutional because it does not have adequate oversight.
Under the terms of the collaboration, which was announced at the Biotechnology Industry Organization conference in Chicago, scientists from the University of California, San Diego will work together with Australia's Monash University and the Australian Stem Cell Centre on various human embryonic stem cell projects that could include developing treatments for neurological disorders, blood disease, diabetes and heart problems.
"This historic initiative will cement Victoria as a global leader in stem cell research and allow our leading stem cell researchers to work alongside their Californian counterparts," said Australian Premier Steve Bracks.
The United States "is definitely a little behind" in this field because of the restrictive rules on federal funding imposed by President Bush, Seiler said. He also noted that Australia has been a player in the stem cell field and has some notable companies, "like Bresagen, which is a leader in the field."
But Seiler said he didn't anticipate that a rush of U.S. scientists will immediately leave for down under.
Australia is hoping to establish a major presence in the field, however. The State of Victoria has invested $1.6 billion over the past six years to develop the infrastructure necessary to make it one of the top five global biotechnology centers by 2010, and Minister for Innovation John Brumby said this week that $35 million in funding had been reserved to establish an Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute at Monash University.
Edward Holmes, vice chancellor for health science and dean of the school of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, told UPI, he thought the collaboration could strengthen stem cell research, but added, "I don't think there are any clear global leaders at the moment in this field."
But he agreed the United States' progress in the field has been hampered by the federal funding restrictions and the hold-up of Proposition 71.
Without these roadblocks, "We would absolutely be moving forward much faster than we are at the moment," he said.
But the collaboration deal with Australia is not a reflection of that hampered progress and would've happened even if the federal funding restrictions were not in place, Holmes said.
"The nature of science today, whether it's stem cells or something else, is collaborative," he said.
Advocacy groups agreed there's no clear global leader in the field, although the U.S. climate is hampering progress in the research.
"It's unfortunate that one of America's leading universities has to look oversees for good partners," said Sean Tipton, spokesman for the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a consortium of patient and medical groups and biotech companies, that advocates for embryonic stem cell research.
"Because of the federal policy, the number of institutions that are willing to make substantial efforts in embryonic stem cell research is quite limited," Tipton told UPI.
As an example of the stifling influence of Bush's policy, Tipton cited Mahendra Rao, the head of the National Institute on Aging, who resigned his post this week due to his frustration over the limited federal funding of the research.
Rao left the NIA to join the biotech company Invitrogen, based in Carlsbad, Calif.
"What worries me is not just the immediate ramifications of the policy but what future Nobel prize winner is not going into the research because of the federal policy," Tipton said. "That's what keeps me up at night."
Tipton said his organization was planning "some fairly significant activities for next month" to spur Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to stick to his pledge to let the Senate vote on a bill that would relax some of the restrictions on federal funding of the research. The House has already passed a similar measure.
"The majority leader told us we're going to have a vote in early 2006 and we take him at his word," Tipton said.
The bill, known as the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, appears to have enough votes in the Senate to pass, but president Bush has said he will veto it if it does.