Stem cell initiative's language called into question

BY EMILY BARTON
Daily News Editor
Published October 9, 2008

Like many other University seniors, Carly Collins isn't quite sure what she'll be doing after graduation. But where she attends graduate school could be determined by the outcome of the Nov. 4 election.

BEN SIMON/Daily
A researcher works with stem cells from mice embryos in a stem cell lab in the Biomedical Science Building on Oct. 3, 2008.

Collins, a cellular and molecular biology major from Livonia, works in the neurology lab on campus, using embryonic stem cells for her research on epilepsy in rats.

She said she hopes to go on to graduate school at the University so she can research human embryonic stem cells.

“If any of the schools is going to discover something, it’s going to be Michigan, and I want to be a part of this,” she said.

But with Michigan’s current stem cell laws, among the nation's most restrictive, she would have to go out of state to make her work possible.

“We’re making discoveries on animals that we can’t transfer to humans,” Collins said. “We can do animal stem cell research, but there’s no way we can move forward to use it on humans — you can’t put animal stem cells in people.”

Proposal 2, a ballot initiative, could change that if Michigan's voters approve it in November.

The initiative would overturn a 1978 Michigan law banning the destruction of embryos in research, allowing scientists to use embryos that would otherwise be discarded from fertility clinics to derive their own stem cell lines. It would not change Michigan’s ban on cloning.

Proponents of the ballot initiative, including a group called Cure Michigan, are pushing for the proposal to pass because embryonic stem cells have the potential to cure diseases like Parkinson’s disease and diabetes. But the group opposing the ballot initiative -- Michigan Citizens Against Unrestricted Science and Experimentation -- says the ballot language doesn't give the state legislature the power to restrict the research and its resulting therapies and cures from being abused in the future.

"There's a separate section of the proposal that say all state and local laws apply unless they constrict stem cell research," said MiCause spokesman David Doyle. "The legislature will never be able to pass a law that deals with embryonic stem cell research."

Cure Michigan supporters contest that view. The campaign asked Attorney Richard McClellan, who specializes in government policy at the Dykema law firm, to analyze the proposal. In a letter to John Schwartz, chair of Cure Michigan, McClellan said the proposed amendment provides for enough regulation through “state and local laws of general applicability, including but not limited to laws concerning scientific and medical practices and patient safety and privacy.”

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Thomas Brennan Jr., a former Ingham County district judge, said the ballot proposal wouldn't allow for government regulation. He also said if the restrictions were lifted, it should be done through the state legislature instead of through a proposal to amend the constitution. Brennan was speaking at a round table sponsored by MiCause. Cure Michigan is hosting former President Bill Clinton at a reception in Waterford Friday to promote the ballot initiative.

University scientists strongly support changing Michigan’s research laws.

Sean Morrison, director of the University’s Center for Stem Cell Biology, said the passage of the proposal is key if the University wants to remain a competitive research institution.

“If the initiative passes, then it will dramatically improve our ability to recruit the best young scientists,” he said. “And it will improve the treatments for disease.”

Michigan’s laws haven’t prevented researchers at the University from doing embryonic stem cell research. But the laws require them to import embryos from other states.

Biology Prof. Sue O’Shea said relying on out-of-state embryos is limiting.

“We would like very much to make disease models, to study diseases that Michigan people have,” she said. “We would like to train students about how you grow and derive stem cells and right now, we can’t do it.”

LSA senior Landon Krantz, president of Student Society for Stem Cell Research, said his group has been handing out flyers in the Diag and bringing in speakers to help garner support for the ballot initiative and stem cell research.

“We’re getting a positive message out about the ballot to let people know how and why it affects so many people,” he said.

Krantz said he is working with Students for Life to put together a debate between the two groups, at which time speakers for and against the initiative will be brought in to present their opinions.

LSA junior Lauren Bennett, president of Students for Life, said she not only opposes the ballot initiative, but also all forms of embryonic stem cell research.

“The real question we need to ask is, what is an embryo? An embryo is a living being that will grow into a human being,” she said. “It’s destroying life.”