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US states' stem cell policy update

15 October 2007
Appeared in BioNews 429

A group is being formed in Michigan to oppose the US state's current restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, which do not allow scientists to use embryos that have been left over after IVF. Michigan scientists are permitted to use ES cell lines obtained from other states, but patents taken on the material are making obtaining the cell lines increasingly difficult.

The Michigan Citizens for Stem Cell Research and Cures (MCSCRC) organisation has indicated that it is considering whether to launch an initiative in time for the November 2008 elections. Paperwork has already been filed to create the Stem Cell Research Ballot Question Committee but the organisers are maintaining that they are currently only in the initial stages of preparation. 'We're strictly exploring the possibility right now', said Dave Waymire, of the MCSCRC, adding: 'There are a lot of things that still would have to be done'.

A campaign to lift the current restrictions would probably run into millions of dollars and require over 300,000 signatures for the measure to be placed before the state's legislative bodies, or 380,000 for it to be placed on the ballot box for public voting. Missourians voted in favour of legislation to permit human embryo research in November 2006 by a narrow 51 per cent in favour. The measure has recently come under fire from opposition groups opposing cloning who are threatening to attempt to overturn the reform.

Andy Meisner, a Michigan Democrat, spoke of public support for overturning the current restrictions on embryo research. 'There is a growing statewide coalition of patients and advocacy groups who feel passionately about the need for this change in Michigan law,' he said. But the Catholic Church has indicated that it is prepared to fight the proposals. 'We're ready', said Dave Maluchnik, the Michigan Catholic Conference spokesman, 'Michigan citizens have historically supported life'. The group issued a press statement declaring, 'In order to protect human life at its most vulnerable stage, any proposal, legislative or ballot related, that seeks to clone and/or kill human embryos in this state must be defeated.' Catholic Parishes have begun to distribute DVDs and other educational material to Michigan homes in an attempt to encourage opposition to the reforms, should they proceed.

Meanwhile in Massachusetts, the Public Health Council voted to amend laws imposed by previous Governor Matt Romney that made it difficult for stem cell researchers to establish collaborative research programs with other states. Romney introduced legislation prohibiting therapeutic cloningthat contained the line, 'No person shall knowingly create embryos or preimplantation embryos by the method of fertilisation with the sole intent of using the embryo for research'. The meaning of this line caused much confusion amid the scientific community as the regulations did not refer to the possibility of researchers using cell lines obtained from other states.

Massachusetts scientists refrained from entering into collaborations from other states for fear of criminal proceedings being taken against them, leading to concerns over a 'brain-drain' in the state. 'Those terrific young scientists have a lot of other opportunities', said David Scadden, of the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. 'We want the perception that Massachusetts is a place where this research is welcomed, is thought to be important and is supported'. Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach repeated this concern: 'We were running the risk of having the most promising and brightest researchers leaving the institutions where they have done their most groundbreaking work'.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Group explores stem cell reform
The Detroit News |  12 October 2007
MA relaxes stem cell restrictions
The Scientist |  9 October 2007
Mass. health panel set to reverse Romney-backed stem cell rules
The Boston Globe |  8 October 2007
Stem cell group considers '08 ballot proposal in Michigan
MLive.com |  10 November 2007
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