Monday, January 08, 2007

Stem Cell Battle Looming at the General Assembly

Controversial bills will start session
Democrats want law to prevent ban on stem cell research
Saturday, January 6, 2007

Virginia Democrats will propose a package in the coming legislative session to specifically authorize embryonic stem cell research at state universities.

The package is an attempt to prevent a possible ban on studying embryonic stem cells, said a spokesman for Del. Brian J. Moran of Alexandria, the House Democratic Caucus chairman. It would lay the groundwork for Virginia legislators to someday authorize significant state spending to support the research, such as in California and Maryland.

Embryonic stem cells are master cells that grow into any type of body tissue. Scientists want to use them to develop new treatments for Alzheimer's, diabetes, spinal-cord injuries and numerous other diseases.

"The hope and opportunity that embryonic stem cell research provides should never be closed to thousands of Virginians suffering in silence," Moran said. "Now we have a real chance to cure the incurable, and it's morally wrong to close the door."

Scientists at Virginia Commonwealth University already study embryonic stem cells. The proposed package would specifically authorize embryonic stem cell research within the Code of Virginia, said Moran's spokesman, Jesse Ferguson.

"So that there's no question, no ambiguity, no question that we can stick something in a budget bill to prohibit it," Ferguson said.

During last year's session, Republicans attempted to prohibit the research in Virginia by eliminating any state funding for any institution conducting embryonic stem cell research.

Moran's bill will be joined by a similar one from Del. Mark D. Sickles, D-Fairfax. Another from the Senate would allow the state to put money aside in the Christopher Reeve Stem Cell Research Fund to pay for such research.

"We need to make sure the commonwealth of Virginia leads the way on this cutting-edge research that will save lives," said Sen. Janet D. Howell, D-Fairfax, who will co-sponsor the Senate bill along with Sen. Creigh R. Deeds, D-Bath.

The package would provide safeguards to ensure that the stem cells were donated with informed consent without any inducement and provisions ensuring review of projects through an oversight committee.

The Senate bill would also ban "therapeutic" cloning of stem cells, Deeds said. The Code of Virginia, which bars cloning for reproductive purposes, doesn't ban therapeutic cloning.

Given that the General Assembly cannot add new money to the budget in this session and that all seats are up for election this fall, "This is all about politics," said political analyst Bob Denton of Virginia Tech. The proposal is more about posturing and partisanship than science, he said.

Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William, agreed. "They're keeping the door open for a quick, dirty, ill-informed attack ad in November. That's all that does. It doesn't do anything for advancing science," said Marshall, who opposes embryonic stem cell research and leads the joint legislative subcommittee on medical, ethical and scientific issues relating to stem cell research.

Virginia's stem cell scientists, however, welcome the proposal.

"Clearly, this legislative effort will demonstrate that the state is taking the potential of regenerative medicine for curing debilitating diseases seriously," said Raj Rao, a VCU scientist studying embryonic stem cells as part of the school's focus on regenerative medicine.

University of Virginia stem cell scientist Roy Ogle said: "This should speed up progress and put [Virginia] scientists on more even footing with those in other states."

He added that even if therapeutic cloning, used to create self-perpetuating lines of stem cells from a cloned embryo, were banned, there are several major areas of research that Virginia scientists could pursue to better understand the cells, which were first isolated in 1998.

"I applaud the leaders in Virginia who are seeking to make the state a safe place to pursue the exciting area of stem cell research," said Sean Tipton, president of the advocacy group Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research. "Virginia was the birth place of in-vitro fertilization in the United States, and it's nice to see its leaders again stepping up to protect research that might alleviate human suffering."

Contact staff writer A.J. Hostetler at or (804) 649-6355.

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