A ballot proposal committee formed at the beginning of October is aiming to overturn the ban on embryonic stem cell research in Michigan. That would be a welcome change for University researchers who say the law hinders on the development of medical cures.
Michigan law prohibits embryonic stem cell researchers from deriving their own embryonic stem cell lines using federal funding because it destroys embryos. It does, however, allow for research on adult stem cells and existing embryonic stem cell lines.
A ballot initiative, if passed, would overturn a 1978 Michigan law and allow researchers to derive their own stem cell lines from embryos that would otherwise be discarded.
Marcia Baum, the executive director of Michigan Citizens for Stem Cell Research and Cures, said a repeal of the stem cell ban would allow for increased medical and economic benefits by drawing more prominent researchers to the state.
Baum is also acting as a spokeswoman for the Stem Cell Research Ballot Question Committee.
She said the committee is deciding whether to push for an amendment to the Michigan constitution or a change in state law. Both would require a majority in the November 2008 election for passage, but a constitutional amendment is harder to place on the ballot. A constitutional amendment would require the signatures of 380,126 registered state voters by July 7, 2008, while changing a state law requires 304,101 signatures.
The committee is made up of four members: Rick Johnson, former speaker of the state House; former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz (R-Battle Creek); Richard Whitmer, former president and chief executive officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield; and Detroit Attorney Linda Bloch.
Sean Morrison, director of the University’s Center for Stem Cell Biology, said he’d like to see the ban repealed.
“It would dramatically help research at the University,” he said. “We would be able to derive our own embryonic stem cell lines.”
The University opened a privately funded stem cell lab in February that conducts research on embryonic stem cells. But it must obtain the cells from other universities and research centers, slowing the process.
Morrison said he would be jailed in Michigan for using federal dollars to do the same stem cell research he would receive funding for in states like California.
“That has a generally chilling effect,” he said. “It sends a message to the world that Michigan is not serious about the life sciences.”
He said the University performs adult and embryonic stem cell research. But without being able to derive its own embryonic lines, it can’t keep up with other research universities.
Morrison said embryonic stem cell research should be done alongside adult stem cell research. Embryonic stem cells can grow into any different type of adult cell, making it easier for researchers to work with them as potential cures for diseases like juvenile diabetes. While adult stem cell research is still beneficial, Morrison said the cells are partially specialized and limited in number.
He said the University is making strides in adult stem cell research, but researchers hoping to work with embryonic stem cells won’t even consider doing their work in Michigan.
Michael Clarke, a former University professor of internal medicine, left the University of Michigan in 2005 to pursue embryonic stem cell research at Stanford University.
State Rep. Andy Meisner (D-Ferndale) proposed a bill in April that would allow discarded embryos from fertility clinics to be donated for researchers to derive lines of embryonic stem cells. A hearing on that bill in the House Judiciary Committee scheduled for last month was postponed. Meisner said he’s hopeful the hearing will be scheduled for the end of this month, and he thinks the bill will pass.
“I think it has broad overwhelming bipartisan support,” he said.
Johnson, a Republican, said he thinks there is a better chance of legislation passing if it’s left up to Michigan voters instead of the Senate and the House of Representatives. He said it’s important for people to be able to receive the benefits of embryonic stem cell research without having to leave the state.
“I feel strongly that we need this kind of research in Michigan,” he said. “We believe we’re going to be able to help to make that happen.”
Right to Life of Michigan is opposed to the proposed bill and said it will work to fight any ballot initiative that would legalize embryonic stem cell research.
Pam Sherstad, a spokeswoman for the group, said the organization supports stem cell research – but not any kind that would destroy an embryo. She said many embryos that might be used for research could be adopted, fertilized and implanted in a woman’s womb.
“Every embryo is unique and irreplaceable,” she said.
LSA sophomore Lauren Bennett, vice president of the University chapter of Students for Life, said her group’s position mirrors that of Right to Life of Michigan. She said adult stem cell research has yielded plenty of results – meaning there’s no need to destroy embryos.
“If you can get the same ends without destroying anyone, I think that’s the most responsible decision to make,” she said.
She said Students for Life is planning a campaign to try to convince students that embryonic stem cell research is wrong.