Embryonic Stem Cell Research Divides States

By: - June 21, 2007 12:00 am

University of Michigan stem cell scientist Sean Morrison recently got a telephone call from a woman offering to donate her leftover embryos from a fertilization procedure for his studies on Parkinson’s disease. What she didn’t know was that Michigan law prohibits research on human embryos. Morrison suggested that the woman contact a lab in another state.

Nearby in Illinois, Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) is promoting embryonic stem cell research in an effort to lure scientists and investors, in some cases from neighboring states. In 2005, Blagojevich sent a letter urging Missouri’s top scientists to move to Illinois rather than work under a cloud created by Missouri legislators’ ultimately unsuccessful efforts to ban research on human embryos.

“The lack of federal leadership leaves a vacuum that states are trying to fill on a very piecemeal basis,” said Michigan state Rep. Andy Meisner (D). He is trying for the third year in a row to amend 1978 and 1998 Michigan statutes so that the nascent research can go forward in the job-hungry state’s acclaimed medical research institutions.

Some religious leaders and social conservatives see things differently. Instead of seeking cures for chronic and debilitating diseases by pursuing research that destroys human embryos, they maintain scientists should conduct equally promising research such as non-controversial adult stem-cell studies.

Lending currency to their arguments, a medical journal recently reported that mouse skin cells had been coaxed into behaving like embryonic stem cells and human skin cells may have the same potential.

But scientists argue adult stem cell research and other alternatives are no substitute for embryonic studies. They are eager to experiment with human embryonic stem cells because the undifferentiated cells have the capacity to develop into any organ tissue in the body, a trait called pluripotent.

“This fixation on embryo destruction as the necessary path to medical progress has in fact slowed progress,” said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

President Bush’s decision Wednesday (June 20) to again veto legislation that would allow federal funding of embryonic stem cell research puts the issue squarely in states’ hands.

“Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical. And it is not the only option before us. We’re already seeing remarkable advances in science and therapeutic uses of stem cells drawn from adults and children and the blood from umbilical cords with no harm to the donor,” Bush said.

In response to Bush’s 2001 decision to curtail federal funding of stem cell research and his first veto in July 2006 of a bill that would permit federal funding of the studies, states have taken widely diverging positions on the issue .

Seven states – California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Wisconsin – are providing seed money for the fledgling science, and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) in May called on lawmakers in his state to follow suit.

Six other states – Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, North Dakota and South Dakota – ban the research. Three states – Iowa, Massachusetts and Missouri – have affirmed its legality but do not offer funding.

In Florida and Texas, lawmakers are deadlocked on the issue. Most states have steered clear of it altogether.

“Politicians don’t want to enter this quagmire of ethics and science if they don’t have to,” said Patrick Kelly of the Biotechnology Industry Association . “There’s no real middle ground – no compromise to be had,” he said.

For millions of patients and their advocates, embryonic stem-cell research offers the hope of cures for debilitating and deadly diseases such as juvenile diabetes, spinal cord injuries and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. For scientists, it is a path to discovering the basic workings of human cells and the causes and therapies for a host of human maladies.

But for some religious leaders and social conservatives, who liken the research to abortion, the studies violate the sanctity of human life.

They argue time is on their side because as scientists discover alternative methods of harvesting pluripotent cells, the destruction of embryos no longer will be necessary.

Scientists who favor embryonic stem cell research – including the Bush administration’s Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, who heads the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – say time is running out. Unless the federal government invests in the research, the United States is in danger of falling behind other countries in this cutting-edge field, Zerhouni said at a congressional hearing this year.

Supporters of the science welcome state funding but say that the balkanized approach will create hurdles to scientific progress and that only the NIH is equipped to evaluate which projects merit funding and foster the scientific collaboration necessary to advance the science.

“Creating mini-NIH’s at the state level is, at best, a temporary solution,” said Daniel Perry, Executive Director of the Alliance for Aging Research .

Recent national polls indicate a majority of the American public favors federal support of embryonic stem cell research and in last year’s elections both Democratic and Republican political candidates consistently beat back their anti-stem cell competitors. (In Maryland , both gubernatorial candidates – incumbent Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) and current Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) – supported state funding of the science.)

Indeed, the issue was pivotal in a U.S. Senate race in 2006 that saw Democrat Claire McCaskill oust the Republican incumbent, Jim Talent. McCaskill backed amending the state constitution to allow the research; Talent opposed the move.

Most Democrats in Congress and state capitals are united in support of embryonic stem cell research, but the issue has split Republicans. Many oppose any research that involves embryos. But others, including high-profile Republicans such as Nancy Reagan with loved ones who have suffered from debilitating diseases, are vocal supporters.

Following is a more detailed rundown of where states stand on the issue:

New Jersey
became the first state to appropriate money for the research, earmarking million in January 2004 to be distributed over 10 years to stem-cell research labs. The Garden State was also the first to distribute funds to researchers. In December 2005, the Commission on Science and Technology gave million of the appropriation to 17 research projects at university, nonprofit and corporate labs in the state. This year, Gov. Jon Corzine (D) signed legislation to provide another million to build and equip five stem-cell and biomedical research facilities in the state.

voters on Nov. 2, 2004, approved Proposition 71, a 10-year, billion funding program. The program became embroiled in legal proceedings over patent rights to the resulting discoveries and the makeup of the grant program’s governing board. Because funding was stalled, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) gave the program a state loan of million in August 2006. In June 2007, the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine approved grants of million to construct shared facilities at 17 academic and nonprofit institutions.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R) signed a measure in June 2005 to provide million in state funding over 10 years for embryonic stem-cell research. The first round of grants – nearly million – was awarded in November 2006 by the Connecticut Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee to support research at the University of Connecticut , Yale University and Wesleyan University .

Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) directed the public health department in July 2005 to grant million to stem cell projects over 10 years and added million more to the fund in July 2006 after Bush vetoed a bill seeking to open up federal funding for the science. In August 2006, the Illinois Regenerative Medicine Institute granted million to seven projects at Illinois public universities.


Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R), who later lost his re-election bid, signed a measure in 2006 approving million to be distributed over an indefinite period as grants and loans to stem cell research groups in the state. On May 17, 2007, the Maryland Stem Cell Commission handed out its first grants to 24 state institutions, totaling about million over a three-year period.

Gov. Jim Doyle (D) has been a vocal supporter of federal funding for stem cell research, but he has been unable to persuade his Legislature to appropriate funds. Instead, he has created a million investment fund, including public and private money, to build a research facility where embryonic stem-cell studies may be conducted . The Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery , scheduled for construction in 2008, will be located on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison , where scientists first harvested embryonic stem cells.

New York
Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) signed a budget measure in April 2007 that sets aside million for stem cell research over the next 11 years. Spitzer’s deputy, Lt. Gov. David Paterson, termed the state action a stopgap measure. “Leadership at the national level is absolutely critical on this issue and, sadly, it has been non existent for far too long. New York has had to fill this gap in the interim,” Paterson said in a statement .

Gov. Deval Patrick in May 2007 proposed billion in funding for stem cell research , a move aimed at sealing the state’s reputation as a worldwide leader in biotechnology. Earlier in the year, Patrick proposed changes to public health rules designed to lift a bureaucratic barrier to the research created by his Republican predecessor, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, an opponent of stem cell research.

Gov. Chet Culver (D) signed a bill this year repealing a 2002 state ban on the research and explicitly ensuring the legality of stem cell research.

voters approved a ballot initiative enshrining in the state constitution the right to conduct the research and receive the cures. The Missouri initiative came in reaction to repeated legislative attempts to ban the research.

Six states outlaw embryonic stem cell research
: Michigan (1998), Louisiana (2000), Indiana (2003), Arkansas (2003), North Dakota (2003) and South Dakota (2003) have laws on the books that prohibit human cloning for research or therapy.

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.