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Debating stem cell 'safe haven'

Mass. lawmakers weigh the benefits, ethics of endorsing research in state

May 5, 2003
By Jeffrey Krasner, Globe Staff
Boston Globe

Supporters of a bill that would make Massachusetts a ''safe haven'' for embryonic stem cell research yesterday urged lawmakers to pass the measure quickly. But at a legislative hearing, a handful of opponents warned against crossing an ethical boundary.

Among the proponents, academics spoke of the need to encourage research stalled by restrictions on funding and a shortage of stem cells. Industry officials spoke of opportunity to keep Massachusetts at the forefront of one of medicine's most promising developments. And patients with debilitating diseases and injuries spoke of the hope offered by stem cells, which theoretically can develop into any type of human tissue, enabling doctors to make previously unthinkable repairs to the body.

''Whenever you hear people talk about curing paralysis, you always hear the same words: to walk again,'' said Travis Roy, who was paralyzed in 1995 in the first minute of his first college game as a Boston University freshman hockey player. ''But it's so much more than that. It's to feel again, to have control of bowel and bladder again. It's to have sensation and to have normal sexual functioning. Stem cells are my biggest hope for walking again.''

The bill's opponents, outnumbered at yesterday's hearing, were equally passionate. Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, parochial vicar of the Church of St. Patrick in Falmouth, called research on stem cells derived from human embryos an ''immoral project'' that turns ''human life into a commodity that can be destroyed at will.''

Yesterday's hearing before three committees of the state Legislature marked the first debate on the bill, which brings one of the more divisive issues in medical ethics to the fore as the state seeks to protect its role as a leader in biotechnology.

If enacted, the bill would give a government seal of approval to stem cell research already being done in Massachusetts, including so-called nuclear transfer technology that creates ''clone'' embryos. But it would also prohibit reproductive cloning - using similar techniques to create a baby. Massachusetts currently has no explicit ban, though no one claims to be pursuing such cloning

State Senator Cynthia Stone Creem, Democrat of Newton, who sponsored the bill, said Massachusetts risks losing its preeminence in biotechnology if it isn't passed.

''We all know this research is going to take place,'' said Creem. ''If it doesn't take place here, it'll take place somewhere else. Scientists are going to California because it's a safe haven.''

She said similar bills to endorse embryonic stem cell research are pending in a handful of states, including New York, New Jersey, Tennessee, Rhode Island, and Maryland.

In written testimony, Robert Lanza, vice president of medical and scientific development at Advanced Cell Technology Inc. of Worcester, said the company is ''exploring the possibility of relocating to California,'' which has passed a measure similar to that being considered in Massachusetts. The company previously threatened to move overseas.

Opponents of stem cell research contend it is wrong to create human embryos just so they can be destroyed to harvest the stem cells, regardless of the potential benefits. Some opposed to the research believe that the embryos, which are created much like those in a fertility clinic for implant into a mother's uterus, have the potential to develop into humans, and deserve as much protection as a fetus or a newborn.

''Every person in this room was once an embryo, and that has nothing to do with religion,'' said Pacholczyk.

Some scientists contend that embryos created for their stem cells have not reached the point of differentiation where they can develop into humans. Others believe it is acceptable to create embryos for their stem cells and note that most created in the lab for fertility treatments remain frozen in liquid nitrogen or are otherwise destroyed.

''I'm a lifelong devout Catholic and I take my religion quite seriously,'' said Moira McCarthy Stanford, president of the Bay State branch of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International, a supporter of the bill whose daughter suffers from juvenile diabetes. ''So while it was tempting to jump onto the stem cell bandwagon for the sake of my girl, I knew I had to study the issue closely. To not take this brave road would be the sin.''

Stem cell research in the United States was dealt a setback in August 2001 when President Bush restricted federal funding to experiments using existing colonies of stem cells being grown in laboratories. Research using newly created stem cell lines doesn't qualify for the rich funding from the National Institutes of Health and other agencies. As a result, there aren't enough ''approved'' stem cells - those that existed when Bush made his ruling - to go around.

Stem cell colonies developed since then are better suited for experimental implantation into human patients, said Dr. George Q. Daley, a researcher at Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge. But he said he can't use his NIH funding for such experiments.

''I am certain that advances will happen more quickly if Massachusetts remains at the forefront of scientific progress in this new field,'' Daley said.

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