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Thursday, March 31, 2005

Stem Cell Research - Culture of Life

"Stem Cell Triumph

In a significant victory for science, the Massachusetts state Senate yesterday overwhelmingly passed a bill which would give scientists more freedom in conducting stem cell research. The legislation, proposed by Massachusetts Senate President Robert Travaglini, would promote stem cell research in the state. It also outlawed human reproductive cloning (the creation of cloned babies) and put in place a series of new regulations. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, however, is threatening to veto the legislation. His opposition puts him "at odds with some of the top university and research facilities in Massachusetts." Here are the facts:

THE BUSH BAN: The lack of freedom in stem cell research has been a huge problem since August 2001, when President Bush bowed to the far, far right and limited all federally approved stem cell research to the lines which had already been established. Under his plan, no money could be spent on creating new lines. The problems with this myopic approach were quickly apparent. First, although President Bush claimed more than 60 lines were available, in reality, there were only a handful of viable lines. Second, all of the lines Bush approved turned out to be contaminated with mouse cells, making them unable to ever be used in human medical therapies. Third, thousands of embryonic cells which could be used for research are simply destroyed every year; about 400,000 unused embryonic cells are awaiting incineration after being created, then not used for in vitro fertilization. And finally, refusing to allow the federal government to be involved in research also means there is no government oversight. Even the conservative Leon Kass, the chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, has said, "It is a Pyrrhic victory to keep the federal government out of certain activities, if the price of such a stance means that worse practices are allowed to proceed without oversight or regulation in the private sector."

THE PROMISE: Embryonic stem cells are a cluster of about 150 cells (called a "blastocyst") which form a few days after the joining of an egg and a sperm. The resulting mass is no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. Within the center of the cluster are stem cells, which scientists believe have the potential to become any of the cells that make up the human body. Scientists believe these cells hold the key for one day treating a slew of diseases and injuries, such as spinal injuries, Alzheimer's, strokes, Parkinson's, diabetes, brain injuries and heart defects. The cells already have shown they can "produce druglike compounds that can help ailing organs repair themselves." They've also shown promise as "biological pacemakers," correcting heart rhythms. And new studies by private researchers at Advanced Cell Technology, Wake Forest University School of Medicine and the University of Chicago found stem cells could reproduce the cones and rods in the eyes, successfully reversing some blindness.

NO ATTACK OF THE CLONES: Romney is basing his opposition on therapeutic cloning. In a blitz of radio ads yesterday, he charged the legislation was a "radical cloning bill." He's wrong. The technique, better known as "somatic cell nuclear transfer," is simply a procedure in which the nucleus of an adult cell is inserted into an unfertilized egg cell, causing it to divide. Stem cells are then gathered from the new group of cells. (Researchers strongly support the technique, because it allows them to sharpen their focus on particular diseases and create stores of cells for particular patients.) The egg is never fertilized and thus could never become an actual person. Far from allowing human cloning, the Massachusetts legislation provides strong and specific safeguards against abuses like the ones Romney is using to stir up public apprehension. Any scientist caught experimenting with human cloning, for example, will face a $1 million fine and a 10-year prison term.

FEDERAL RESPONSIBILITY: In the next two to three months, the House of Representatives will allow a vote to loosen the restrictions on stem cell research which were put in place by President Bush in August 2001. Last year, a bipartisan group of 206 House members signed letters asking Bush to reverse his faulty policy; so did 58 senators. Reps. Mike Castle (R-DE) and Diana DeGette (D-CO) have introduced two bills (which have hundreds of co-sponsors) which would support the more liberal use of federal funds and allow the use of leftover embryos from in vitro fertilization. The bills also would enact the first federal ethics rules for the research. So far, the House leadership has kept the legislation from getting either a hearing or a vote. There is also a Senate version to support stem cell research, introduced by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Tom Harken (D-IA), which many experts believe would have enough votes to pass, should it ever make it to a vote. (Senate leader Bill Frist has said it is likely he would allow a vote should the House version pass.)

SWEEPING THE NATION: Other states across the country are stepping up to fill the funding and responsibility vacuum left by Bush's ban. In November, California citizens voted to spend $3 billion over the next decade on stem cell research. And just this week the Maryland House of Representatives passed a bill to set aside $25 million every year for stem cell research, although conservatives in the Senate are threatening a filibuster. Connecticut is poised to allow $10-20 million; Wisconsin may set aside $750 million."