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Senate committee passes bill backing stem-cell research
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Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, says his bill would settle a dispute over whether the U of M can move forward with its stem cell research. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
A committee in the Minnesota Senate has approved a bill that would encourage and support the University of Minnesota's plans to conduct embryonic stem cell research. Researchers at the U of M were at the state Capitol on Thursday to explain why they intend to move forward with the research. The U of M announced last month that it intends to use private money to do research on stem cells derived from days-old embryos. Scientists say the research has the promise of curing many illnesses including heart disease and Parkinsons. Critics say a 1973 state law forbids the research and say they disagree with the bill on ethical and moral grounds.

St. Paul, Minn. — Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, says his bill would settle a dispute over whether the U of M can move forward with its stem cell research. The debate surfaced after the U of M announced last month that it intends to do the research using private money. The funding source allows the U to skirt limits it faces with federal funds, which can only pay for research on certain, pre-existing stem cell lines.

Some critics of stem cell research argue that a 1973 state law forbids any experimentation on a living embryo. The law says no research can be done on a living embryo. Kelley and the U of M say the stem cells don't qualify as living under state law.

"I think it's legal now, but some people have raised a legal question around it. I think it's important for the Legislature to make it very clear that embryonic stem cell research is legal and ethical," Kelley said.

The research uses stem cells from a four- or five-day-old embryo, which are destroyed in the process. The embryos are donated by would-be parents through fertility clinics. The clinics often create more embryos than are used for a pregnancy.

The cells from these embryos show enormous promise because they can adapt and grow into almost any kind of tissue. If scientists can coax those cells to grow specific tissues for the brain, heart or liver, cures for many diseases could be found.

Several groups testified in favor of the bill, including Merlyn Satrom. The St. Paul native has Parkinson's disease, which causes stiff muscles, and forces him to stoop and lose his balance.

"Stem cells especially embryonic stem cell research would seem to be the key in unlocking the cause not only of Parkison's but other diseases -- like Alzheimer's, MS, heart disease, diabetes and others," she said.

Catherine Verfaillie, with the U of M's Stem Cell Institute, says she believes it's necessary to move ahead with the research. Verfaillie says the stem cell lines approved by the federal government aren't sufficient. She also says it's important for her laboratory to compare research on embryonic stem cells with research done on adult stem cells, which are taken from blood, bone marrow and skin.

"It is quite possible in my mind that embryonic stem cells will turn out to be very good cells to treat diseases A, B and C, whereas adult stem cells might be better in treating D, E and F," she said.

The U of M says it will not create any embryos for research.

No one testified in opposition to the bill. The group Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life submitted a letter saying it opposed the research because the group believes it takes the life of nascent human beings.

Sen. Tom Neuville, R-Northfield, says he's also concerned that the U of M says it will move forward with the research even though the 1973 law is in place. Neuville says he doesn't think a county prosecutor will go after the U of M if they move forward with the research but he still questions the morality of it.

"Even if that doesn't happen, how can anyone deny that this is a strong statement of the state's public policy and I'm really upset that the university can think they can start this research without coming to the Legislature and having this public discussion," Neuville said.

Neuville and other opponents also say they're worried that science keeps redefining the rules on the basis of promising research.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is an opponent of legalized abortion, says he has some questions about the research. Pawlenty has said that he wants the state to become a leader in biosciences, and he says embryonic stem cell research is important. Pawlenty says he still has concerns but would be more supportive of the U of M's research if the embryos are donated to the institution.

"If the embryos were truly were going to be discarded, that would address one of my concerns; to make sure that we're not just creating factories for embryonice development that have the moral issue or the ethical issue, that we're creating embryos that could be used for research. That's troubling to a lot of our citizens," Pawlenty said.

The bill may have more difficulty in the Republican-controlled House.

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