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Jewish Journal

Q & A With Jerry Zucker

by Idan Ivri

June 30, 2005 | 8:00 pm

Jerry Zucker. Photo by Gary Caskey/EPA

Jerry Zucker. Photo by Gary Caskey/EPA

Last November, California voters easily passed Proposition 71, which provides $3 billion in state grants for embryonic stem cell research. Jews supported Proposition 71 in much higher numbers than most voters.

Two of the initiative's primary backers, Robert Klein and film producer Jerry Zucker ("Airplane," "Ghost" and "First Knight"), are Jewish. Klein has become head of the committee overseeing the new California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which will award Proposition 71 funds. Zucker has more or less returned to the sidelines. He talked to The Journal about his role in Proposition 71 and the politics and science of stem cells.

Jewish Journal: How did your work in the field of stem cell research begin?

Jerry Zucker: Well, it started because I have a daughter with juvenile diabetes. The truth is, the day we heard the diagnosis, my wife and I promised my daughter we'd do everything in our power to find her a cure.

So we started asking around, scientists and doctors, and we kept hearing about embryonic stem cell research. Then we saw the president of the United States go on television and say he's not going to allow any federal funding for new stem cell lines.

We knew that was very damaging. The reason the U.S. is a leader in biotechnology is because of money from the government to do the basic science, because it's sometimes not initially profitable.

JJ: So at a certain point there was a series of meetings that you had at your home to move the research forward?

JZ: We had a meeting at the house and invited everyone we thought could help, scientists, people knowledgeable politically and Hollywood movers and shakers. We learned a little bit about politics, and we raised some money.

And the first thing that happened while we were preparing was that [Republican] Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas introduced a bill to outlaw somatic cell nuclear transfer or therapeutic cloning. That's where [for example] they would take a single cell from my daughter, take out the nucleus and insert it into an unfertilized egg, and then you can take the stem cells that grow from that. There's the possibility that you could take those stem cells and create beta cells -- which create insulin, which my daughter is missing -- and inject those back into my daughter without the fear of rejection.

JJ: So after you heard what Brownback was trying to do, that pushed you toward what turned into Proposition 71?

JZ: My wife and my daughter and a scientist went to about 20 different senators. I think we were helpful in convincing people to vote against that bill. It was very frustrating for the religious right.

Then state Sen. Deborah Ortiz [D-Sacramento], who had done great work in California making somatic cell nuclear transfer explicitly legal, called one day and she said, "I was thinking of proposing a bill to have stem cell research funded by a bond initiative."

My wife, Janet, called Bob Klein, who was on the board of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and he was interested. We all put some money into it, and we hired campaign consultants. It was a learning curve.

JJ: How difficult was it to get the initiative written and figure out the specifics of what you wanted it to do?

JZ: That was a long and difficult process, because we wanted to make it an initiative that someone can't knock off for legal reasons. We had ourselves, consultants and attorneys all around a table at a number of meetings.

The scientists would say, "Don't put this in, because it will limit us," or "We can live with these guidelines." Then we had a lot of discussions about the wording of it politically and the legal ramifications.

We worked on this thing for a couple of years before the election. It was a long time. There was a lot of time spent on drafting, coalition building, fundraising and publicity and advertising.

JJ: Proposition 71 was strongly backed by Jews in the November 2004 election.

JZ: We did polling by ethnicity, religion, age, sex, everything. And Jews were overwhelmingly supportive of it. It was 85 percent or 90 percent, something ridiculous. Everyone else polled a bit closer -- Democrats were higher, Republicans were lower. But Jews were off the charts.

I think that Jewish law is pretty clear on this. You do whatever you can to save a life, and that an embryo in a freezer is not a life yet.

JJ: The measure passed comfortably at the ballot box, but the state has yet to allocate any Proposition 71 money, because of two pending lawsuits. How great a concern is that development?

JZ: I'm cautiously optimistic. It's unfortunate, but not unexpected that those who couldn't defeat it at the ballot box are trying to defeat it in the courts. Until we've cleared up the lawsuit, we can't start selling bonds.

JJ: Sen. Ortiz, a longtime supporter of stem cell research, has raised concerns about possible financial conflicts of interest among the leaders of the new stem cell research institute. She's even talked of putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot to reign in the institute if changes aren't made by July 12. Where do you stand on this?

JZ: I love Deborah Ortiz, and for years she's been an ally, but I don't agree with her current stance. The proposals she's making now, they're not helpful.

Originally she had a [proposed] moratorium on somatic cell nuclear transfer. That's now been withdrawn. Now she wants an assurance that poor people will have access to the medicine. It's a difficult question.

With the original organ transplants, people said they'd only be available for the wealthy. But now they're routine, and the waiting lists are adjudicated only by need and not by class or money. But had there been all kinds of legislation at the beginning, the science of organ transplants might have been hindered. Sometimes initially these things are expensive. This is not the place to propose a comprehensive health care plan for California.

JJ: Have you spoken to Klein recently? Do you feel that he's doing a good job in his position, dealing with these challenges to the institute?

JZ: Bob Klein is a very, very smart guy. I have confidence in Bob to steer through this.

JJ: There have recently been developments in Washington, D.C. The House of Representatives has passed HR 810, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act,

which would allow the use of federal

funds in this research. The U.S. Senate has not yet acted. President Bush has said he would veto this legislation if it reaches his desk. What can and should be done in this arena?

JZ: Anybody who reads this article who has a relationship with a senator, particularly Republican senators who may be undecided, that person should definitely call or write them, because this bill is important. It would be a big step forward.

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