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Stem-cell research holds much promise

http://www.thetranscript.com/Stories/0,1413,103~9049~1772537,00.html

Monday, November 17, 2003
Julie Mehegan
Transcript Statehouse Bureau
Boston

To medical researchers and those stricken by disease or injury, stem cell research holds the promise of life-changing medical progress.

Because they are "generic" cells with the potential to regenerate and produce specialized tissues in the body, stem cells offer hope to patients whose cells are destroyed by diseases like Parkinson's and Lou Gehrig's Disease or by spinal cord injuries.

But to some people, one particular type of stem cell research -- conducted on cells derived from human embryos -- threatens the sanctity of life.

Now the controversial discussion about stem cell research has come to Beacon Hill, with a proposal by the Senate to spell out the state's support for embryonic stem cell research.

It is part of an effort to attract and retain prized biotechnology companies, and is included in the Senates version of a pending $115 million economic stimulus package that also includes research and development tax credits and other business incentives.

The proposal asks lawmakers to declare that "human embryonic stem cell research...(presents) a significant chance of yielding fundamental biological knowledge from which may emanate therapies to relieve, on a large scale, human suffering from disease and injury."

The proposed law also spells out that the state supports such research only on donated human embryos remaining after in vitro fertilization, and it bans human cloning. Supporters include the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, an industry group which represents 400 companies, and advocates for people who might benefit from medical advances owed to stem cell research, such as the Spinal Cord Injury Association of Greater Boston.

They note that the research in question is already taking place in Massachusetts. The language in the Senate bill would clarify the definition of embryo under state law, which some say is vague and could prompt research companies to defect to more welcoming states like California, which passed a similar law last year.

It is also meant to send a signal to researchers and biotechnology companies that the state welcomes their work.

"It essentially memorializes the stem cell research and the promise that it holds for regenerative medicine," said Vicki Greene, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, who said Massachusetts has the largest geographic concentration of biotechnology companies in the world. "We think we need it to shore up our global leadership position in biotechnology."

Ron Bielicki, a paraplegic for 20 years and board member of the Greater Boston chapter of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, said if the state lays out its support for companies that conduct stem cell research, it could better the prospects for research he hopes will help him to one day walk again.

"It's one step in opening the door to research," Bielicki said. While his goal is to secure federal and state funding for stem cell research, Bielicki supports any public policy change that would encourage biotech companies and research institutions to direct their dollars toward stem cell research.

"It could change my life, or it could change others who have been injured, and I don't know if people who are against this feel the same way or see things the way we see things," he said.

But critics of embryonic stem cell research want the scientific community to concentrate research efforts on adult stem cells, arguing there is little evidence that embryonic cells will open doors to medical advancements that adult stem cells can not.

The Catholic community argues that using human embryos for research violates the church teaching that life begins at conception, and consider research on human embryos, even in the interest of medical research, to violate that teaching.

"It's a pernicious approach to public policy to say that in order to cure person A, we need to kill person B, and ignore or overshadow all of the ways of curing person A that don't involve killing anyone," said

Daniel Avila, associate director for policy and research for the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the Roman Catholic church in Massachusetts.

Some also argue that the language in the Senate proposal leaves the door open for cloning of human embryos for research purposes.

Sen. Cynthia Creem, a Newton Democrat who sponsored the Senate proposal, defended the decision to bring it up as part of a jobs bill, and said critics have unfairly tried to align the discussion over stem cell research with the abortion debate.

Creem said the legislation is clear that embryonic stem cell research could take place only on three- to five-day old embryos that have been donated with the informed consent of the donor.

"They sit there, they get old, or they get thrown away or discarded, or they stay frozen forever," Creem said. "There is so much promise there. Why would we limit it?"

It is unclear whether the proposal in the Senate will survive negotiations with the House, which passed its own economic stimulus package without a section addressing stem cell research. A conference committee is negotiating a compromise which will be taken up this week.

Even if the House agrees to go along with the Senate proposal, it is unclear if Gov. Mitt Romney would sign it. Romney, whose wife is battling multiple sclerosis, "sees tremendous potential" in stem cell research, said his spokeswoman, Shawn Feddeman, but he has not yet taken a position on the Senate proposal.

The debate in Massachusetts mirrors an ongoing national debate over the ethical ramifications of stem cell research. In 2001, President George W. Bush limited federal funding for stem cell research projects to 70 existing embryonic stem cell lines, and appointed a national commission to study the issue.
 

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