U of M researchers frustrated by Bush’s stem cell veto

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University researchers were left frustrated after President George W. Bush vetoed a bill that would have loosened federal regulations on embryonic stem cell research.

The bill, referred to as the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, would have allowed federal funding of research on human embryonic stem cells in cases in which the cells otherwise would be destroyed.

These cells are the first to develop in embryos and replicate to become many different kinds of human cells. Researchers say they have medical potential due to their flexible nature – the cells could be therapeutic, useful in understanding how organs develop or take the place of human subjects in clinical trials.

The University works with embryonic stem cell lines that have been approved by the federal government for funded research, as well as newly derived lines that, while legal to work with, are ineligible for federally funded research.

These attractive research projects are funded through state money, grants from foundations and other private sources.

“Even with our track record and University support, we have very limited funding for our work,” said Meri Firpo, assistant professor and member of the University’s Stem Cell Institute.

And when funding runs out for these projects, Firpo said, they’re put on hold.

Firpo said as things are, the University has to be careful to adhere to federal funding guidelines.

The institute conducts similar research in separate labs to ensure that federal dollars only go toward approved research projects. This makes for stringent accounting processes and lab procedures, which Firpo says comes at a cost to productivity.

This bill would have allowed the University to use federal funding to derive new lines of stem cells and to distribute those lines to other University labs that can’t easily separate federally and privately funded research, and for those labs to use the cells without running afoul of the law, Firpo said.

Medicine professor and Stem Cell Institute member Dan Kaufman works in such a lab. He said the bill would have allowed researchers with federal funding to work with cleaner embryonic stem cell lines.

“We’ve learned how to grow cells without contaminants (used to grow the cells),” which would be more suitable for many kinds of research, Kaufman said.

Kaufman works with blood cells, using stem cells to understand the ways blood cells develop. Through this, he said, blood cells can be designed to cure patients of certain diseases, such as a “cancer-killing cell.”

But that requires nonfederal money, which is hard to come by, Kaufman said.

Kaufman was not reserved about the veto, either.

“With this veto, (Bush) is not saving any embryos, but he is denying people with otherwise incurable diseases a lot of hope,” Kaufman said.

Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., voted for the bill in May 2005 when the House first passed the bill, and again voted to override the veto Wednesday.

“I am extremely disappointed that President Bush’s veto denied research institutions like the University of Minnesota the opportunity to expand their world-class research into treatments for diseases like Parkinson’s, diabetes and muscular dystrophy,” Sabo said in an e-mailed statement.

Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said he voted against the bill last week because he doesn’t “support using federal funding for the destruction of human embryos.”

“By exploring the promise of nonembryonic stem cells, we can offer hope and healing, while bypassing the ethical issues related to embryonic stem cells,” he went on to say in an e-mailed statement.

“In fact, with science moving as fast as it is,” Coleman said, “this debate over embryonic stem cells may be obsolete in the near future.”

Kaufman sees embryonic stem cells becoming more important as more research is conducted, however.

“The field’s going to continue to grow, because the people who understand this see the potential that’s there,” he said.

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