At the Capitol, stem cell research gaining support

by Christopher Aadland and Logan Wroge

After years of controversy over the use of state funds for regenerative medicine — or stem cell research — support for the field appears to be growing at the state 
Legislators and University of Minnesota researchers hope to make the state a destination for this type of research in the future, only a few years after it faced moral and ethical objections from some lawmakers. This year, additional funding could be used to hire more University faculty members to study stem cells.
The Legislature awarded nearly $50 million over 10 years last year to form a partnership between the University and the Mayo Clinic to further regenerative medicine research. It was so successful that this year, school officials asked the state for additional funding.
“Minnesota should be at the forefront of this research,” said Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, who authored a bill this year to provide additional funding for the partnership. “It has the potential to help solve some of the most pressing challenges when it comes to human health.”
Though Sieben’s bill didn’t get approved this year, the Senate recommended a portion of the $25 million for the Medical School be used to hire additional stem cell researchers.
Regenerative medicine can be applied to help treat diseases like bone and cartilage injury, lung disease and heart diseases, said Dr. Jakub Tolar, director of the 
University’s Stem Cell Institute, which was the nation’s first center dedicated to stem cell research.
Tolar said the state’s recent investments will put Minnesota on the map for advancements made in the field and also help retain more faculty members.
In the past, the school has had difficulties attracting talented researchers because regenerative medicine didn’t have support from the state, Tolar said.
In the last decade, the use of embryonic stem cells has largely been opposed by state lawmakers. In 2011, Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, authored a bill that would ban certain types of stem cell research.
The bill never became a law because of its projected chilling effects over research in Minnesota.
Advancements in regenerative medicine have allowed many policymakers to disregard these concerns, said Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River. He hasn’t heard much opposition from other legislators this year.
Zerwas said he could have benefited from stem cell research when he was an infant. He was born with a heart defect that has required him to have 10 open-heart surgeries.
His experience caused him to become passionate about stem cell research, he said, and he hopes advancements in the field will benefit others who face similar health problems. 
Zerwas said he’ll continue pushing for more state support of regenerative medicine research in the future. 
“We are at, literally, the first stages of this field, which I think will absolutely revolutionize how we treat patients in modern medicine,” he said.
The Senate bill offering additional funding for regenerative medicine was approved earlier this week, but the House’s all-encompassing higher education bill doesn’t set aside funds. Legislators have until May 18 to decide final funding amounts for regenerative medicine.