Thursday, January 22, 2009

Georgia GOP May Block Obama Move on Stem Cells?

Originally from the Atlanta Journal Constitution...

State GOP may stop stem cell research
Will this not hurt our economy in Georgia?

Shortly after taking office, President Barack Obama is expected to lift the 7-year-old federal restriction on embryonic stem cell research.

When that happens, certain state lawmakers will attempt to re-create a state version of the blockade in Georgia, sparking yet another Capitol fight over the thorny issue of science, religion and moral boundaries.

The battle will draw close attention from the state’s university system —- not to mention a budding biotech industry. Tens of millions of dollars in research grants are at stake.

Beyond African-Americans, scientists are perhaps the demographic group most delighted by the end of the George W. Bush administration. Too often, many of them argued, the White House placed ideology above researched fact.

One of the deepest wells of scientific resentment can be found in the field of embryonic stem cell research. For more than 10 years, scientists have drooled over stem cells as a source of replacement tissue damaged or destroyed by a range of diseases and injuries.

Diabetes, spinal cord injuries, deafness, blindness, you name it.

While stem cells have been discovered in many forms of adult tissue, researchers say the most potent lines are developed from newly formed embryos —- clumps of a handful of cells —- discarded by fertility clinics.

Because the discarded embryos are destroyed in the process, many Christian conservatives —- though not all —- equate the practice with abortion.

In the early months of his first term, President Bush limited federal funding to research involving embryonic stem cell lines already in use. He barred the use of federal dollars for any research that involved the creation of more.

Many scientists argue that the decision crippled one of the most promising initiatives of a generation. Some states, Georgia not among them, began funding research on their own.

For three years, University of Georgia researcher Steve Stice has worked with Republicans to broker a compromise on the issue.

He’s eager to see Obama lift the ban. “The larger question, and what everybody hopes for, is that there’ll be some federal funding that will follow as well.”

One UGA biochemist recently landed a $9.2 million grant for stem cell research. Stice himself recently landed a share of a Department of Defense grant —- “north of $4 million.”

The Pentagon has been a major backer of stem cell research, Stice said. “We’re trying to find a way to replace bone that has been damaged, to get soldiers —- and then civilians —- walking on injured limbs.”

So far, the Department of Defense has demanded that research be restricted to the use of adult stem cells. That could change if Obama reverses the Bush order, Stice said.

Should the new president do so, you can expect Republicans in Georgia to respond with an attempt to forbid any federally funded research involving embryonic stem cells at state university labs. The use of state funds was prohibited in 2006.

“I would assume there will be an effort to restrict embryonic stem cell research. Georgia would stake out its ground as being pro-life,” said state Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah).

Johnson is running for lieutenant governor but until recently was the ranking member of the Senate.

Stice says he hopes a state ban won’t happen. “If Georgia’s going to do this on stem cells, what kind of environment is it for all kinds of biotechnology?” he asked.

Business interests blunted efforts to restrict stem cell research two years ago. And an international biotech conference in Atlanta —- a prime recruiting opportunity for the state’s economic development arm —- is set for May. So the GOP’s pro-life forces may be forced to hold their fire during this session of the Legislature.

Nor are Republicans unanimous in their opinions about embryonic stem cell research. State Rep. Bob Smith (R-Athens), 55, lost 80 percent of his hearing when he was a child. It’s never returned.

Smith recently asked Stice to help him recruit a team of researchers to the state to work toward a cure for all kinds of deafness. If embryonic stem cell research is part of that, Smith said, so be it.

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