Stem cell bill under debate

The bill covering state-funded stem cell research is being debated in the House.

by Courtney Blanchard

A Minnesota House committee heard a bill Wednesday that would establish policy for state-funded embryonic stem cell research.

The bill, introduced by campus-area DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn, became instantly controversial as lawmakers and testifiers raised scientific and ethical questions about research involving human embryos.

After a heated debate that led the House Biosciences and Emerging Technology Committee to close 30 minutes late, lawmakers sent the bill to the Higher Education and Workforce Development Policy and Finance Division Committee without a vote.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he wouldn’t support any bill to fund research that involves the destruction of a human embryo.

University assistant professor Meri Firpo, who conducts diabetes research using embryonic stem cells, said she doesn’t understand the governor’s perspective on the issue.

“It’s not clear to me the scientific basis of what he’s saying,” Firpo said. Scientists don’t know for sure if cells can be extracted from embryos without damaging them, she said.

Firpo said part of the controversy might have to do with the common misconception about embryonic stem cell research.

“People get fetal research and embryonic research confused all the time,” Firpo said.

Ranking minority member Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, said Pawlenty’s statements have been blown out of proportion.

“The assertion that somehow the governor, or anybody who wears a conservative stripe like I do proudly, is opposed to stem cell research is, I hope, not a deliberate obfuscation of our real position,” he said.

Beard said he doesn’t oppose stem cell research, but he questions the use of embryos.

“The issue is how we deal with our cultural definitions of the foundations of life,” he said.

Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, questioned the success of embryonic stem cell research.

“This is not just a simple issue of looking for (cures for) diseases. We’ve had doctors testify that we’ve had zero treatments using embryonic stem cell research,” said Peppin, who unsuccessfully tried to exclude any embryonic stem cell research that would destroy the embryo.

Kahn responded that patients of fertility clinics can donate unused embryos for research.

In many circumstances, the unused embryos are destroyed, she said, but with less controversy than surrounds embryonic stem cell research.

“In vitro fertilization raises really all of the issues that we’re discussing now. And we’ve never looked at it,” Kahn said.

The bill would not dictate whether certain types of stem cell research are legal in the state, but only which types are eligible for state money. Currently, there are several lines in the country that can receive federal money.

Firpo said because of the restriction, researchers must find private funding, slowing down the pace of research.

At the University of California-San Francisco, policy and funding restrictions led Firpo and other scientists to work in a strip mall several miles off campus. Still, scientists were able to derive nearly a dozen stem cell lines.

Now at the University of Minnesota, Firpo said she has University support and clear research guidelines, but there’s a clear division between money spent on stem cell lines that are and are not eligible for federal funds.

“We even have to buy separate pens for the labs,” she said.

After the meeting, Beard said he guessed the governor would not sign the bill in its current state.

“No one here is opposed to stem cell research,” he said. “But some of us do have great pause in taking the public treasury and putting it in areas where it’s just not sitting well in our hearts.”

The bill is House Bill 34.