States drafting laws on stem cell research

Some fund as others ban science

Md. bill contested

April 04, 2005|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,SUN STAFF

As Maryland's state senators grapple with a divisive bill to fund embryonic stem cell research, their struggle mirrors one unfolding in state legislatures across the country.

From Massachusetts and Connecticut to Wisconsin and Hawaii, at least seven states are in a race to secure funding for a science some are banking on to provide a miracle cure for dozens of debilitating diseases.

But the forces on the opposing side are vocal, arguing that the research is unethical, the equivalent of killing a human being.

The result: a fierce tug-of-war dividing the country as some lawmakers consider endorsing or funding a science that the federal government won't, while others move to ban the research.

"Stem cell research is a contentious political issue that's really been building up for the last few years," said Alissa Johnson, a senior policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "It's definitely in a state of flux. The debate is really still in its infancy."

California triggered this year's flurry of activity when voters approved a $3 billion bond referendum last year to create an institute that would fund research over 10 years.

New Jersey earmarked state funds for a Stem Cell Institute last year.

And last week, the Massachusetts legislature joined New Jersey and California in endorsing embryonic stem cell research, including controversial somatic cell nuclear transfer - commonly referred to as therapeutic cloning - the creation of new embryos specifically for research.

While Massachusetts' measure did not include a specific dollar amount, Johnson said that endorsing the research usually is the first step to funding it, pointing to California as an example.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering a bill to expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to existing embryos.

In Maryland, the House of Delegates approved a measure last week to channel $23 million a year to embryonic stem cell research. A state Senate version - which might face a filibuster if it makes it to the floor this week - would leave the financial amount up to the Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has yet to weigh in on the issue. Both the House and Senate bills were amended to prohibit state funding of therapeutic cloning and would permit funding for research conducted on existing embryos from fertility clinics.

But that did not lessen opposition from the Maryland Catholic Conference and other anti-abortion groups, who instead are pushing for a bill that would ban therapeutic cloning, even if privately funded.

President Bush drastically restricted federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to existing stem cell lines in 2001. That forced researchers - largely in public and private institutions - to seek private funding for such research.

As public money has started to trickle into the field, scientists say they expect private money to follow.

"One of the things we're looking at ... is where the biotech investors and entrepreneurs are going," said John Gearhart, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University, who is considered a pioneer in the field. "I think we'll see evidence of private money following pretty quickly."

But as some states move to fund embryonic stem cell research, other states are veering in an opposite direction, considering legislation to ban and criminalize it, even if privately funded.

South Dakota already bans embryonic stem cell research. Other states, such as Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Michigan, have some form of restriction on the research.

Kentucky, Kansas and Missouri are among a handful of states seriously considering bans this year, said Richard M. Doerflinger, deputy director of pro-life activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"I think we're seeing things break down in two different directions," said Kevin Wilson, public policy director of the American Society for Cell Biology in Bethesda. "States that are taking action in a positive direction are those in which biomedical research plays an important component in the state. Those states that are reacting harshly to this sort of research are those in which research is not important to the state."

And even in California, which has been a pioneer in public funding for such research, the logistics of establishing the institute are coming along more slowly than expected.

"They have to start from square one," said Wilson. "They have a couple of mountains that they have to climb.

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