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Stem Cells Revisited

March 27, 2012

Embryonic stem cell research -- a bitterly partisan federal issue that has been debated in previous presidential campaigns -- has been almost absent from the early stages of this year’s presidential race.

The practice, which was allowed on an extremely limited basis under President George W. Bush, has expanded since President Obama took office and seems to have faded somewhat from the national political scene. Proponents say the research has the potential to cure serious diseases, while critics believe harvesting and studying the cells is immoral.

But in at least two states, the examination of embryonic stem cells by public university researchers is again a policy debate.

Michigan legislators are asking the state’s flagship university to reveal, among other things, how many embryos and stem cell lines its researchers are studying, how many they’re storing and how many they’ve received in the past year.

The university hasn’t released the information, and instead provided lawmakers a stack of news releases that one legislator called an “infomercial times 10.” The Michigan House Subcommittee on Appropriations for Higher Education is due to release its budget next week, and Republican Rep. Bob Genetski suggested there could be “consequences” for what he sees as noncompliance with a simple request.

In Nebraska, where voters elect a single Board of Regents to govern the state’s university system, the future of stem cell research at the university medical center is shaping up to be an election issue once again.

In a 4-4 tie, regents voted down a proposal in 2009 that would have limited any stem cell research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center to stem cell lines approved by the Bush administration. But with four regents either leaving office or running for re-election this year -- including three who helped vote down the 2009 proposal -- it’s possible that a reconstituted board might limit or block further research. When it was debated three years ago, many University of Nebraska faculty members -- including some whose research didn't involve stem cells -- opposed a ban on the grounds that it would constitute administrative interference in professors' decisions.

A Lincoln Journal Star report included interviews with the 11 candidates running for the board, among whom six either oppose embryonic stem cell research or wouldn’t divulge their views. Others pledged to defend the practice.

Julie Schmit-Albin, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life, has led a political blitz against stem cell research for more than a decade. While she said it’s too early to know whether her organization will push for the regents to revisit the topic next year, she wishes the medical center would focus on different types of research.

“Like most Nebraskans,” she wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed, “I appreciate the life-saving efforts of UNMC and all the good they do for Nebraskans' medical needs. All we are saying as pro-life Nebraskans is that we disagree with this area of unethical medical research and would like to see them concentrate on research which does not create a moral and ethical divide among Nebraskans.”

But Angie Rizzino, a Nebraska Medical Center professor who performs research on embryonic stem cells, said eliminating those programs would be a mistake.

“If in the future there was a decision to ban research using human embryonic stem cells,” he said, “that would have a very negative impact on the research of labs focused on regenerative research, whether that be in Nebraska or any other state.”

Rizzino and two Nebraska colleagues didn’t want to comment on the current political landscape, but expressed hope that the current agreement would remain in place.

Unlike in Nebraska, embryonic stem cell research in Michigan is protected by a constitutional amendment that was passed after contentious debate. Genetski insists the state House, which has a Republican majority, has no intention of ending work on embryonic stem cells. The legislature has drawn criticism for trying to regulate stem cells.

“This issue probably has very little to do with stem cells and has everything to do with [the university] taking the opportunity to thumb their noses at legislature and ignore specific requests,” he said. “That constitutional amendment did not allow for complete secrecy and darkness on the process.”

But echoing Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman’s testimony before the legislature, Rick Fitzgerald, a spokesman, said the university wouldn't do its research justice if it provided those numbers.

“The basic reason is that we just don’t believe it’s possible to boil down the incredibly important work that our researchers do involving stem cells into a handful of data points,” he said. “We’ve been emphatic all along about this, about putting the university’s stem cell research into the proper context of its potential to cure diseases and save lives in the future.”

Instead of the requested information, which Genetski said could be answered in “two paragraphs,” the university compiled more than 35 news releases, written over three years, that chronicle its professors’ work on embryonic stem cells. The packet also included a letter explaining why administrators thought that information was sufficient, and a spreadsheet listing journal articles on stem cells authored by Michigan faculty members.

Fitzgerald hopes legislators agree that the information they requested isn’t vital and that they won’t allow this disagreement to affect next year’s budget, which is expected to provide the first bump to higher education spending in about a decade.

State-level threats to stem cell research are on the rise, said Carrie Wolinetz, associate vice president for federal relations at the Association of American Universities. She attributes that in part to the friendlier audience anti-stem cell research activists often receive in statehouses. But if states pass laws that limit researchers’ ability to study stem cells, she suggested that could hurt research universities and drive faculty members elsewhere.

“It would be devastating to the researchers there,” she said, “particularly if you’ve got ongoing research projects which could be disrupted midstream.”

 

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