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Battle brewing over new proposed restrictions for stem cell research in Michigan

BY VALIANT LOWITZ
Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 25, 2010

A package of bills moving through the Michigan Senate could add additional restrictions to embryonic stem cell research in the state, much to the dismay of University researchers and student groups alike.

State legislators are currently seeking to amend requirements outlined in Proposal 2 — a 2008 ballot initiative that loosened state restrictions on using embryonic stem cell lines for research — as well as establishing stricter penalties for those who violate the new rules.

One component of the proposed legislation is to change the definition of the phrase “not suitable for implantation,” which is the classification for the embryos scientists use for research under the 2008 ballot initiative.

Currently embryos are classified as not suitable for implementation if they have diseases or other defects, but if the bill passes the classification would include embryos that lack the potential for successful implantation, gestation or healthy development.

In effect, critics of the bill say that the new laws would force patients to discard embryos with diseases, which could otherwise be used for research to cure those diseases.

According to Sean Morrison, director of the University’s Center for Stem Cell Biology Research, this definition would greatly inhibit researchers’ abilities to find potential cures to serious diseases.

“The vast majority of embryos that are discarded as being unsuitable for clinical use are not known to have defects in implantation or fetal development,” Morrison wrote in an e-mail interview. “They are discarded because they are known to have diseases that will lead to death sometime after birth.”

Morrison wrote that if the bills are passed, the pool of usable embryos for research would decrease.

“These bills will force patients to throw away embryos affected by serious diseases rather than donating them for stem cell research,” Morrison wrote.

Morrison wrote that one example of this is in the case of embryos that carry the gene for Huntington’s disease.

“Patients always elect to discard embryos that are found to carry the Huntington's disease gene rather than using them for fertility treatment,” Morrison wrote. “However, these embryos would not meet the restrictive new standard for ‘unsuitable for clinical use’ in these bills because the embryos probably implant and develop normally.”

He continued: “As a result, Michigan families would be forced to discard these embryos rather than having the option to donate them for research to cure Huntington’s disease.”

But according to State Sen. Tom George, chair of the Senate Health Policy Committee, opponents of the bill are misinterpreting what the bill would actually require.

“All of the hyperbole is simply untrue,” George said.

The bills seek to clarify the language used in Proposal 2, especially the phrase, ‘unsuitable for clinical use,’ so that everyone is on the same page before moving forward with the research, according to George.

“If you have confusion that doesn’t serve anyone,” he said.

George said the legislation wouldn’t ban the use of embryos that carry genetic diseases for research. Instead, the proposed legislation limits the ability to discard embryos based on non-disease characteristics like hair or eye color.

“All of the provisions are less stringent than what they have in Massachusetts and California,” he said. “The penalties that we have for violating the act are in line with the penalties that are used in other states that have similar laws."

George also said opponents of the bill didn’t show an interest in the writing of the proposed legislation when input was welcomed during various public hearings and meetings.

“If they don’t like the definition, then they had the opportunity to change it,” he said.