Massachusetts Legislators Consider Bill on Stem Cell Research

May 7, 2003

Tags: Stem Cells + Therapeutic Cloning

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Researchers at Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research testified on Beacon Hill last week in support of a bill that would promote stem cell research in the Commonwealth. The bill, which mirrors a similar measure passed in California last year, would give a government seal of approval to embryonic stem (ES) cell research.

Unlike adult stem cells—regenerative cells found in many mature organs and tissues—ES cells can form any tissue in the body, including neurons, heart muscle and insulin-producing pancreatic cells, making them an attractive target for therapy for diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, heart disease and spinal cord injuries.

Because the same technologies used to study ES cell therapy can be used for reproductive cloning, the bill explicitly outlaws human cloning and criminalizes such research.

“The Massachusetts biomedical community needs to know that it has the endorsement and support of the Massachusetts legislature to pursue basic and applied research on embryonic stem cells,” said Whitehead Fellow George Daley, one of several scientists to testify in support of the bill. “I am certain that advances will happen more quickly if Massachusetts remains at the forefront of scientific progress in this new field.”

Legislators listened to more than five hours of debate, including often emotional testimony from patients hoping to benefit from stem cell therapy.

“Whenever you hear people talk about curing paralysis, you always hear the same words: to walk again,” said Travis Roy, who was paralyzed in 1995 in his first game as a Boston University freshman hockey player. “But it’s so much more than that. It’s to feel again, to have control of bowel and bladder again. It’s to have sensation and to have normal sexual functioning. Stem cells are my biggest hope.”

Although the Massachusetts bill won’t trump federal policy, many proponents agree that its passage will impact future federal decisions about the fate of stem cell research.

“Legislative debate about the future of stem cell research has created a climate of uncertainty in my work as well as the work of others in my laboratory,” said Willy Lensch, a postdoctoral fellow in the Daley lab, in testimony that underscored the challenges faced by young researchers working on ES cells. “This bill is important not only for those of us working in the field, but also to those who stand to benefit most from the creation of new therapies.”

Legislators also heard testimony from opponents of the bill, including the Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, parochial vicar of the Church of St. Patrick in Falmouth. Pacholczyk testified that stem cell research is an “immoral project” contrary to the teachings of the Catholic church. Similarly, other opponents argued that the destruction of human embryos, regardless of the potential benefits, should be outlawed.

State Senator Cynthia Stone Creem (D-Newton), who sponsored the bill, said Massachusetts risks losing its preeminence in biotechnology if emerging areas like stem cell research are not supported and promoted. “We all know this research is going to take place,” said Creem. “If it doesn’t take place here, it’ll take place somewhere else. Scientists are going to California because it’s a safe haven.”

Similar bills to endorse embryonic stem cell research are pending in several states, including New York, New Jersey, Tennessee, Rhode Island and Maryland.

President Bush dealt stem cell researchers a setback in 2001 when he restricted federal funding to only those stem cell lines that existed as of Aug. 9, 2001. At the time of the announcement, the Bush administration claimed that there were more than 60 cell lines available. But of those 60, only 11 have since been listed on the National Institutes of Health’s stem cell registry, and seven of the 11 are controlled by foreign countries.

This policy has made the acquisition of approved cell lines difficult and curtailed new research efforts, said Daley. “Since 2001, new, improved human ES lines have been developed. These new improved cells are more suitable for actual transplantation into patients, but under the president’s plan, we cannot use our NIH grants to study these cells.” Daley is hopeful that the administration will yield to scientists’ demands and ease restrictions by allowing the introduction of new cell lines.

Although the fate of stem cell research is unclear, many researchers remain committed to advancing the field. “I am incredibly hopeful about the potential this research holds for human disease,” said Lensch. “I also believe that this work can be conducted in a manner that is careful, thoughtful and respectful of the origins of human embryonic stem cells.”

The bill, catalogued as Senate Bill 515, is still under consideration and no floor action has yet been scheduled. The bill’s progress can be tracked online at http://www.state.ma.us/legis/ltsform.htm.

Written by Melissa Withers.

Whitehead Institute is a world-renowned non-profit research institution dedicated to improving human health through basic biomedical research.
Wholly independent in its governance, finances, and research programs, Whitehead shares a close affiliation with Massachusetts Institute of Technology
through its faculty, who hold joint MIT appointments.

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