Taking the initiative

Meet the man behind the California ballot measure to fund stem cell research

Photo: Amanda Marsalis


A year after his son Jordan was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes, Palo Alto developer Robert Klein took the 11-year-old to Washington, D.C., to help lobby for continued federal funding for diabetes research. He listened as Jordan described his grim future prospects to Sen. John Kerry -- possibly an amputated leg, blindness and severe heart and kidney problems.

Now in June 2004, over breakfast at a Portola Valley café near his home, Klein explains how he tried to comfort Jordan, the youngest of his three children, who had become depressed at the thought the country might not really care about people with chronic disease.

And he recalls his son's response: "Dad, don't worry. Everyone is dying. I'm just dying a little faster." Klein paused with this memory, a bit teary-eyed. "As a father, you can't sleep with that. So you try to find an answer."

Klein has found his answer in stem cells. A Stanford-trained lawyer, he wrote the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative and is now statewide chair for the proposition, which will appear on the November ballot. The initiative would provide $3 billion in tax-exempt state bonds -- $295 million a year over 10 years -- to finance stem cell research, which Klein believes will spawn a cure for diabetes and many other diseases.

If the initiative passes, California would become the only state other than New Jersey to fund research in the controversial field of embryonic stem cells, placing California at odds with the Bush administration, which has restricted use of federal funds for this purpose.
Klein says he turned his attention to stem cells when he realized the current direction of diabetes research would do little to prolong his son's life.

"It was clear the research was going to mitigate blindness and reduce amputations, but it wouldn't cure the disease," he says. "So the question was, what would cure it?"

He immersed himself in medical literature and spoke to leading researchers in the field. What he learned convinced him that stem cells were the key.

Today, the campaign is all-consuming for Klein, an 80-hour-a-week proposition. It has come at some cost to his business, in which he finances and builds affordable housing around the state.

He has enlisted a number of Stanford scientists in the stem cell effort, including Irving Weissman, MD, director of the Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine, and Paul Berg, PhD, professor emeritus of biochemistry, who are members of the campaign's scientific advisory board; Philip Pizzo, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, who's a member of the medical advisory panel; and Judith Shizuru, MD, assistant professor of medicine, who's on the campaign's executive committee.

Klein says the campaign's polling shows the initiative will pass with more than 60 percent of the vote if advocates can effectively get their message out. The campaign has a $20 million budget, including $1.5 million of Klein's own funds. His goal is to raise $1 million a week, much of it coming from families of patients with chronic disease, like his own. In addition to his son, his mother suffers from Alzheimer's disease, though the initiative will come too late to help her, he says.

His son, meanwhile, is being schooled at home this year because a growth spurt has made it difficult to control his insulin levels. It is with him in mind that Klein presses forward, unable to contemplate defeat.

"The only thing I can think of is working seven days a week and making it happen," he says. "There is no other option."

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