With initiative on November ballot, scientists talk up potential of embryonic stem cells

BY ELAINE LAFAY
Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 22, 2008

Scientists extolled the advances that could come from embryonic stem cell research yesterday at a forum sponsored by the University. The event comes two months before state voters decide on a ballot initiative that would remove many restrictions embryonic stem cell research in Michigan.

University President Mary Sue Coleman, whose office co-sponsored the event with the Institute of Medicine, said she chose to host an event on the topic because the ballot initiative has made the issue especially timely.

“Michigan voters are trying to educate themselves about it, so I wanted to provide this opportunity,” said Coleman, who supports embryonic stem cell research. “I hope they’ll have a clearer understanding of what the ethical issues are and also about the science – what it is and what it isn’t – because I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the whole issue of stem cell research.”

As a public institution, the University can’t take a stance on one side of a ballot measure, even though Coleman and other officials have spoken out against restrictions on stem cell research. But the University can sponsor educational events about political issues.

LSA senior Landon Krantz, president of the Student Society for Stem Cell Research, said Michigan’s laws were outdated and in need of change.

“While there are researchers around the country who are trying to find cures for tens of diseases, researchers in Michigan are bound,” he said.

The controversy surrounding the practice lies in the idea that an embryo would need to be destroyed to get the stem cells for research. Embryonic stem cell research opponents argue that those embryos could be implanted in a woman’s womb and grow into a fetus. The Michigan initiative — labeled Proposal 2 on the November ballot — would only authorize research on embryos that would have been discarded.

Scientists say embryonic stem cells could yield cures to a number of diseases, including Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. There are two main types of stem cells: embryonic and adult. Embryonic stem cells have the potential to develop into any type of cell. Adult stem cells are further along in development and are already specialized.

Sean Morrison, director of the University’s Center for Stem Cell Biology, said the Stem Cell Initiative wouldn't give scientists complete freedom with regards to human embryos; just the ability to conduct stem cell research.

“It constrains the ability of the state legislature to regulate stem cell research on human embryos even while – like in Missouri – it says that the research must be legal under federal law,” said Morrison.

Stem cells divide among themselves so one cell can produce a line of daughter cells. Currently, the government only funds research done on embryonic stem cell lines that were taken before 9 p.m. on August 9, 2001 — the day President Bush announced his decision to prohibit the use of federal funds for research on embryonic stem cell lines created later. That leaves 21 lines available for federal research. Six of those are contaminated.

All other embryonic stem cell research must be pursued privately. While many states offer funding and support, Michigan does not. Michigan law prohibits any research that destroys embryos for non-therapeutic purposes. Stem cell research in Michigan is limited to existing stem cell lines from other states.

Lawrence Goldstein, director of the University of California-San Diego Stem Cell Program, spoke at the event, saying that blocking Michigan scientists from embryonic stem cell research would have negative effects on the economy.

“Some of your very brightest scientists who are located here in Michigan will be unable to contribute to that progress and unable to spit off companies in Michigan that do this,” he said.

University of Pennsylvania Bioethics Prof. Jonathan Moreno discussed policy and ethical issues facing the research. Asked who should have the upper hand in stem cell legislation, he said a combination of federal and scientific regulation was the best course of action.

Krantz said the event enlightened audience members about the benefits of embryonic stem cell research both in terms of health and for the state's economy.

“It reinstated the understanding that in the end, it’s all about cures,” he said. “They sort of hit home that this year is Michigan’s chance to even the playing ground and get involved in a remarkable opportunity.”