Stem cell advances

March 06, 2006

Maryland has the scientific talent to be a leader in the field of stem cell research, but does it have the political will? The question is likely to be answered this week when one of the most important bills introduced in the General Assembly this otherwise ho-hum session, the Maryland Stem Cell Research Act of 2006, reaches the Senate floor, where it faces a potential filibuster by religious conservatives.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has proposed spending $20 million on stem cell research in the coming year (not counting more than $13 million budgeted to create the Center for Regenerative Research at the University of Maryland, Baltimore). But legislation is needed to set the parameters by which research grants will be approved. Without them, there's a danger that politics, not good science, will drive the decision-making.

A governor might, for instance, steer grants away from embryonic stem cell research to satisfy right-wing zealots. The Bush administration's maddening opposition to certain types of embryonic stem cell research is exactly why states must fill the void. Stem cell research is an emerging science with tremendous promise not only to cure diseases but also to provide economic dividends for Maryland's biotech economy.

On Friday, the House approved its version of the stem cell legislation. In a matter of days, it will be time for the Senate to act. While the Senate version of the bill doesn't contain everything supporters would like - there's no target level set for state funding, for instance - it's a reasonable compromise. Perhaps most important, the bill establishes a commission with appointees representing the governor, the legislature, the state attorney general and leading medical research institutions to evaluate grant proposals.

While the bill's opponents may push the Senate into a prolonged debate, the legislation's prospects look good nonetheless. The key vote may rest with Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat who gained attention recently for giving the Heimlich maneuver to a political foe. Rescuing this bill - and establishing Maryland as a stem cell research leader - could do wonders for Mr. Giannetti's political health in an election year.

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