Two funding bills passed in the state Legislature this week have University of Minnesota researchers worried about the future of stem cell research in the state.
Those bills include prohibitions on human cloning, but the language of the bans also outlaws a technique used to create embryonic stem cells.
Sandwiched into the Senate’s health and human services funding bill is an amendment that bans the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). Members of the Senate voted to pass the bill Wednesday night.
The state House of Representatives and Senate passed higher education bills Tuesday that include bans on the use of state and federal funds for SCNT.
In a letter to state Republican leaders, Gov. Mark Dayton promised to veto any funding bill that includes policy measures.
If he rejects those items and the bills containing them have to be returned for separate passage, Dayton wrote that “those delays will be the Legislature’s responsibility, not mine.”
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said the movement’s supporters are trying to curb embryonic stem cell research, hiding their effort behind the curtain of a human cloning ban.
Marty tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to exempt SCNT use for research into cures for diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and cancer.
In SCNT, DNA from a patient’s cell is implanted into an unfertilized egg. About five days later that egg will develop into a ball of cells called a blastocyst. Part of the blastocyst is then removed in order to grow embryonic stem cells.
It’s the first step in the cloning of a human, called “reproductive cloning.” The procedure was used to clone a sheep named Dolly in 1996 but has not been successfully performed to clone a human.
Dr. Meri Firpo said she and her colleagues at the University’s Stem Cell Institute would wholeheartedly support the bills if they only restricted reproductive cloning.
But if signed into law, the ban would outlaw using SCNT for medical purposes, or “therapeutic cloning.”
Researchers like Firpo are concerned that a ban will close an avenue of research that could be important in the future, particularly in her work to cure diabetes.
Researchers at SCI aren’t using stem cells from SCNT today, Firpo said, but the procedure is particularly valuable because it creates cells that genetically are nearly identical to those of the patient, thereby decreasing the chance of rejection.
“We’re talking about less than 100 cells — we’re not talking about a fully formed human fetus,” Firpo said of embryos cultivated for therapeutic cloning.
But to Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life — one of the chief supporters of the ban — cloning is cloning, no matter the purpose or when the embryo is destroyed.
“We don’t believe that human life should be manufactured and destroyed for the possible benefit of others,” MCCL spokesman Bill Poehler said.
The group supports research using adult stem cells — typically harvested from the umbilical cord without harming a newborn — because it doesn’t require the destruction of an embryo, Poehler said.
If adult stem cells or other cell types prove unsuccessful in Firpo’s search for a diabetes cure, SCNT may be the next logical step. “The technology of SCNT may be very important for saving lives,” she said.
‘People are not going to come here’
As soon as the cloning bill debate fired up in Minnesota, the poaching began, Firpo said.
Research institutions across the country began reaching out to personnel at the SCI to see if they’d be interested in relocating to a friendlier research environment.
A ban on SCNT would “put a big stamp of ‘Not Welcome’ on top of the state of Minnesota for life sciences,” said Mary Koppel, spokeswoman for the University’s Academic Health Center.
The University has invested about $30 million into stem cell research, facilities and faculty, Koppel said, not including grant dollars lost if some SCI faculty members leave.
In the competitive world of medical research, it’s no surprise to Koppel that researchers might turn away from Minnesota in favor of a state with fewer restrictions.
“If this is the type of turn that this University is going to have to take … then people are not going to come here,” Firpo said. “And people who are here are being recruited to go to other states.”
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