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State's stem cell bill: the political stakes are high

A good share of politics is riding in tandem with science on a stem cell bill the Minnesota Legislature sent to Gov. Tim Pawlenty during the final days of this year's session.

The DFL-sponsored bill would affirm the right for scientists to conduct research on stem cells derived from embryos under limits spelled out in the legislation. It also would allow state funding for research on the cells.

Although no funds were allocated this year, the bill sets the stage for Minnesota to join several other states, including Wisconsin, that are racing for a claim on research that is expected to propel medicine toward major new treatments and discoveries about disease pathways.

So much for the science.

On the political side, opposition to research that has the bipartisan backing of many patient groups is one reason American voters are fed up with President Bush's domestic agenda, said Charlie Cook in his Cook Political Report published by the National Journal.


Voters increasingly are voicing "disappointment with the GOP's emphasis on social, cultural, and religious issues, pointing especially to the controversies over the Terri Schiavo case and over embryonic-stem-cell research," Cook said.

The stem cell issue was one of many divisive points in the special election race to replace former Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert in Illinois in March. Republican Jim Oberweis stridently opposed the research, and he lost to Democrat Bill Foster in a district Bush had carried by wide margins in 2000 and 2004.

Cook said that election, and another surprise loss for the Republicans in Louisiana, "sent the GOP an unmistakable signal that the party's 25-year-old playbook is obsolete: Simply spouting an undiluted conservative message doesn't consistently work anymore, even in some of the nation's reddest districts."

McCain and Pawlenty on the issue
Such are the stakes for Pawlenty as he faces the prospects of a fierce battle for legislative seats this year as well as his shot at joining Sen. John McCain on the GOP's national ticket.

McCain is on record supporting the stem cell research. Pawlenty could pose the opposite view in an appeal to social conservatives the party needs to energize in a tough election year. But it is not clear how that would play overall with the majority of voters who favor the research.

Pawlenty's office did not respond to requests for comment this week. But he threatened to veto the bill last year. And in February this year, he sent a letter to every member of the Legislature, restating his opposition.

In the letter dated Feb. 21, Pawlenty said stem cells taken from adults rather than embryos create "ample opportunity to work toward lifesaving cures without crossing moral and ethical boundaries." Further, he argued for following a new approach that came to light in November when scientists in Wisconsin and Japan reported they had reprogrammed genes in ordinary skin cells to create the equivalent of embryonic stem cells.

Many scientists agree that the breakthrough could lower the need for the embryonic cells. But it may be years before the reprogrammed cells are ready for practical use.

And their development will depend on the embryonic versions, said Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL Minneapolis, who holds a Ph.D. in biophysics from Yale University. After a decade of research, the cell lines derived from embryos provide "the gold standard" against which new cell types must be measured, Kahn said.

Kahn is the bill's chief House sponsor, and Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, sponsored the Senate version. It passed the House 71-62; the Senate, 40-27.

Kahn agreed in an interview Tuesday that the bill raises "a very potent political issue." But she added, "I'd rather have it pass as a science issue."

Opposition to bill
Republican opponents in the Legislature echoed Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL), which said in an intense lobbying campaign that the bill would permit scientists at the University of Minnesota to "destroy living human embryos for experimentation and to clone and kill human beings — and use taxpayer dollars to do so."

Embryos, donated from fertility clinics where they otherwise would have been discarded, were destroyed to create the first lines of stem cells. The bill would establish a state policy sanctioning research on both adult and embryonic stem cells as long as patients who donate embryos for the studies consent in writing. The research would need to be approved by review boards at appropriate institutions.

The bill would make it a felony to clone a human being. But it would allow so-called therapeutic cloning in which a patient's cells are coaxed to an embryonic state where they regain the potential to create all of the body's different tissue types. The hope is to steer them toward making tissue for transplantation. In theory, rejection should not be a problem because the tissue would come from the patient's own cells.

The debate has pitted the MCCL and its allies against advocates for patients who have a stake in the research. People with Parkinson's disease, diabetes and other ailments testified for the bill in hearings last year. While cures may be years away, many patients see stem cells as their best long-term hope.

The first clinical trial of a therapy derived from embryonic stem cells was expected to begin this year.

But the journal Nature reported in its online edition today that the Food and Drug Administration has put the trial – for treatment of spinal cord injury — on hold for undisclosed reasons.

"The hold comes a month after the FDA held its first advisory meeting on how best to evaluate products derived from ES cells," Nature said. "Industry analyst Steven Brozak of WBB Securities in San Diego, California, worries that the decision for the hold was motivated by political objections to ES-cell research, but researchers in the field discount this, saying that the agency is genuinely uncertain about how to ensure safety."

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