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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. “However, their response was to do nothing.”

If passed, the bills would also mandate that researchers disclose information to the state about decisions patients make when seeking fertility treatment, like what they want the embryos to be used for and whether their current children have any birth defects.

Morrison wrote that forcing researchers to release this information would discourage people from using state-run fertility treatments.

“I suspect that many patients would be uncomfortable knowing that their doctors would be forced by these bills to make detailed reports to the state government,” he wrote. “Patients who are uncomfortable with the government tracking their reproductive decisions might end up going outside of the state for fertility treatment.”

But George said the bill creates a reporting requirement that involves a one-page summary submitted annually that shows the total number of embryos being used for research.

George said the reporting requirement would be an aggregate count, and would thus be “blind data.”

“It is ludicrous to think that someone would not seek treatment because of a one-page reporting requirement,” George said.

George also said all state-supported institutions are already required to submit stem-cell research reports to the federal government, and therefore there wouldn’t be any new reporting required from the University. Private institutions, though, currently don’t have to send such reports, and would then be required by the state to do so if the bills pass through the state government, he said.

State Sen. Liz Brater (D–Ann Arbor) expressed concern that if passed, the restrictions would negatively affect the state’s stem cell research industry.

“The bills seem to be intended to harass researchers,” Brater said. “We have the potential to be a world leader in stem cell research. The proposals are already embedded in the constitutional amendment, and they are totally unnecessary.”

Brater went on to say that the University of Michigan has the facilities necessary to attract researchers to the state. But restrictions in the bills — like placing researchers in prison for something as minor as not filing paperwork properly — would dissuade out-of-state researchers from coming to Michigan, reducing job opportunities in the state, she said.

“Health care is one of the most profitable sectors in the Michigan economy,” Brater said.

But George said if passed, the measures in the bills wouldn’t discourage researchers from coming to the state.

“Researchers will come if they’re paid,” he said.

George said the proposed restrictions are similar to those placed on tattoo parlors in the state. Tattoo industry regulations like mandating the use of clean needles and licensing don’t cause tattoo parlors to be outsourced to different states, he said.

“If we invest the money into the industry and pay our researchers, they will be attracted to the state,” George said.

The University’s chapter of the Student Society for Stem Cell Research recently vocalized its opposition to the proposed restrictions by participating in Capitol Day on Tuesday, when advocates for stem cell research met in Lansing to protest the bill.

“The citizens of Michigan were able to voice their opinions when Proposal 2 came on the ballot,” Engineering sophomore Shwetha Suresh Maddur, political advocacy chair of SSSCR, wrote in an e-mail interview. “These restrictions are slowing down the efforts of scientists to cure diseases.”

Morrison wrote that though some proponents of the bill have said they respect the measures that the 2008 ballot initiative allow, he is skeptical about their true intentions.

“When proponents of these bills say they accept the results of Prop. 2 and just want to regulate the research, that’s like me saying that I accept we need an auto industry but just want to regulate it by making it illegal for cars to have wheels in Michigan,” Morrison wrote.

But George disagrees, saying both researchers and politicians need to read the proposed legislation to better understand the provisions outlined within it.

“Any industry has an automatic response to oppose oversight,” George said. “I am very disappointed with this response, which has portrayed legislators as cavemen thinking in the past."

The bills now await votes in the State Senate Health Policy Committee.