Stem cell bill nears vote in Md. House

General Assembly


A bill to provide state money for stem cell research in Maryland is poised for passage in the House of Delegates, with a vote expected as early as today on an initiative that would move Maryland to the forefront of the scientific field.

"The fact of the matter is there are people back home who are suffering," said Del. Peter A. Hammen, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Health and Government Operations Committee. "They are counting on us to pass a bill to offer research that will find a cure."

Lawmakers rejected a spate of GOP amendments yesterday to the plan, which would allow the state to commit money annually to research but does not mandate funding. The bill, which was approved by the Senate this month, is more modest than the one originally backed by the House. The initial House plan would have given priority to research using embryos and would have dedicated $25 million a year to research.

The state needs to provide money, supporters argue, because a federal ban on funding for research using new embryonic lines is quashing innovation.

Embryonic stem cell research is opposed by religious conservatives who view it as akin to abortion because an embryo is destroyed when the cells are extracted. Many of those critics favor the examination of adult stem cells, which have produced some advancements but which many scientists say are not as promising.

Those scientists say that research using embryonic stem cells - which can take on the properties of many of the body's different types of cells - could help develop treatments or cures for many diseases, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

The proposal, which could head to the governor's desk later this week, tasks an independent commission and panel of scientists with determining which proposals would receive funding. It also uses the term "unused material" instead of "human embryo."

Del. William J. Frank, a Baltimore County Republican, unsuccessfully introduced an amendment yesterday that would have inserted references to "human embryo."

"This is human embryos, this is human lives we're talking about," Frank said. "None of us in this chamber was ever an `unused material.' All of us were once a human embryo at one point."

This year, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. proposed $20 million for stem cell research, proposing that the Maryland Technology Development Corp., a quasi-state agency with a $4.8 million budget, administer the grants. He has said he doesn't believe legislation is necessary.

As part of their budget, lawmakers signed off this week on a $15 million research commitment for the fiscal year that begins July 1, or $5 million less than what the governor wanted.

A spokesman for the governor said yesterday he would take his time deciding whether to sign the bill.

"He will give the final version careful consideration and will reserve judgment on the bill until he has done so," said spokesman Henry Fawell.

If Maryland moves forward with legislation, it will join California and New Jersey, among a few others, in backing state funding for stem cell research.

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