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‘U’ stem cell researcher to lobby Senate panel to reverse ruling

BY ELYANA TWIGGS
Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 14, 2010

Correction Appended: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the 13 NIH-funded projects and the Consortium for Stem Cell Therapies could be financially affected by the outcome of the forthcoming court ruling, which only affects federal funding for human embryonic stem cell projects.

Sean Morrison, right, director of the University’s Center for Stem Cell Biology at the Life Sciences Institute, speaks to the Student Society for Stem Cell Research on Jan. 17, 2005 at the Michigan League. (File Photo/Daily)

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Sean Morrison, director of the University’s Center for Stem Cell Biology at the Life Sciences Institute, will testify on Thursday in front of a United States Senate subcommittee in Washington D.C. to push for the continuation of federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research.

The hearing, called “The Promise of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research,” will be held before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies.

The testimony comes about a month after U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth ruled against federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, Morrison said in an interview last night. In his ruling, Lamberth said that an executive order issued by President Barack Obama in March 2009 to expand funding for stem cell research is illegal because it could lead to the destruction of embryos.

Scientists currently working with embryonic stem cells funded with federal dollars are allowed to continue their work until a final decision is made on the ruling, The Associated Press reported. But despite this caveat, Lamberth’s decision to halt funding for the research has “thrown the field into a kind of crisis,” Morrison said.

Last year, $6.8 million in federal stimulus funds were awarded to University researchers from the National Institutes of Health for stem cell-related projects that exam new ways to treat diseases.

At least five of the grants awarded to the University would be suspended if the judge’s ruling isn’t overturned, Morrison told The Michigan Daily in an interview last week.

Morrison said he plans to reiterate the importance of legislation that supports all forms of stem cell research — including on adult and embryonic stem cells — when he speaks before the subcommittee.

“We don’t yet know where the new therapies are going to come from and we won’t know until the research is done,” he said in the interview last night. “We are far too early in the development of the field to start blocking or weighing all of our bets on one type of stem cell and reject others.”

In an interview with the Daily last month, Max Wicha, director of the University's Cancer Center, said if the government blocks federal funds for research, it will have a "chilling effect" on stem cell research conducted throughout the country. He explained that the U.S. would lose many researchers who would travel to other nations in order to continue their work.

Morrison also said last night that he is concerned that the issue could be “caught up in election year politics,” as subcommittee members may be reluctant to support an issue as contentious as stem cell research right before a highly partisan election. This might slow the passage of legislation relating to the field, he said.

The problem for researchers like Morrison is that legislation supporting stem cell research was passed by Congress twice before, he said, but was eventually vetoed by then-President George W. Bush.

Despite these past mishaps, Morrison said he is confident that he has support within the subcommittee, as it is composed of senators who are “sympathetic” to the cause. Morrison cited U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D–Iowa), who is a past sponsor of funding expansion for stem cell research.

In addition to Morrison, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and a former University professor, and George Daley, director of Stem Cell Transplantation at Children’s Hospital Boston, are scheduled to speak at the hearing, according to a University News Service statement released on Tuesday.

— Daily News Editor Stephanie Steinberg and The Associated Press contributed to this report.