Legislator moves to block state from funding embryo research

Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

In a move that could affect future University research, a Minnesota legislator introduced a bill yesterday that would deny public funding to institutions that conduct stem cell research using human embryos.

The bill’s introduction coincides with yesterday’s news that South Korean researchers have successfully cloned human embryos for stem cell research.

Rep. Tim Wilkin, R-Eagan, who introduced the bill with 28 co-authors, said the bill responds to media reports that the University will conduct embryonic stem cell research once it finds private funding.

“They came and announced this out of the blue. They didn’t consult with us,” Wilkin said of the University’s news. “We give the University substantial funding, and the University has a well of goodwill. That goodwill got stretched pretty thin.”

The current bill is broadly written to deny all public funding to the University, but Wilkin said it will be amended and specify which kinds of funding would be affected.

“The University has tried to forego a public debate,” he said. “They know the public has serious concerns about this kind of issue.”

He said the bill is not an attempt to lessen the freedom of University researchers but an effort to hold the University’s research accountable to the public.

“The taxpayers and citizens have a great interest in what goes on at the University, and we want them to act within the ethical limits of what research should be,” Wilkin said. “We don’t have any right to enhance our quality of life by taking another life.”

Wilkin expressed concern about the stem cells’ origin, which are taken from a fertilized embryo in one of the earliest stages of human development.

“Every one of us started that way,” Wilkin said. “No embryo has grown into anything but a human being.”

Researchers are attracted to fertilized embryos because of their potential to create beneficial stem cells, said John Finnegan, a professor in the University’s School of Public Health.

Stem cells contain information needed to develop different parts and organs of the human body, he said. In embryos, they are the cells that begin dividing in the early formative stages of a human.

Their potential lies in the possibility they could be nurtured and directed to form different kinds of cells, he said. Adult stem cells, already used in research, do not have such variability.

Researchers suspect embryonic stem cells could mend heart tissue after a heart attack or repair damage caused by diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson’s.

If passed, the bill would substantially affect University research, Finnegan said.

“It would have a huge impact on the University’s ability to conduct leading edge research,” he said.

Vice President of University Health Sciences Frank Cerra said no embryonic stem cell research is underway and no private funding for that area has been secured. Only the policy decision to move forward with the research has been finalized.

Because he had not read the bill, Cerra could not comment on the potential of its passing.

Cerra will meet with Wilkin and the State Legislature in the coming weeks.

While Cerra said the University’s accountability as a public institution makes it an ideal place for research, he hopes legislators will be open minded about the issue.

“I interpret this as another opinion we need to listen to, and I hope they will be willing to listen to what we’re saying and understand it,” he said.

Dr. John Wagner, a University professor whose previous research involved adult stem cells, said it remains to be seen whether the bill would be a threat to research at the University.

He said Minnesotans should hear all arguments regarding embryonic stem cell research before making a decision.

“People need to make informed decisions about this,” Wagner said. “We would like to have the opportunity to really talk to the public and explain what we are doing.”

The state Legislature is the ideal conduit for public debate about the issue, Cerra said.

“The difference between where we were 200 years ago and today is that the Legislature provides the forum for different points of view to be expressed,” Cerra said. “Two hundred years ago we did that with guns, and we don’t need to do that anymore.”

– Kari Petrie contributed to this story.