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Stem-cell legislation a turning point for Iowa

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In the next few days, the Iowa General Assembly will have the opportunity of a generation: It can improve the quality of life for tens of thousands of Iowans by passing the Iowa Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative.

Stem cells hold enormous promise for treating and curing conditions such as diabetes, cancer, blindness, and paralysis from spinal-cord injury, liver disease, heart disease, burns, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and many others.

Embryonic stem cells have the potential to become any cell in the body, including brain cells, skin cells, liver cells, heart cells, and so on. Therefore, human embryonic stem cells hold greater promise to cure diseases in patients than adult stem cells. But there is a snag. Five years ago, the Iowa Legislature passed a law that represents a significant roadblock to using embryonic stem cells for the treatment of disease.

Under this unfortunate law, which we hope will be nullified in the next week, both the patient and the patient’s physician would be criminalized if they were to use a treatment derived from a stem-cell generation process called somatic cell nuclear transfer. That’s right. Unless this law is changed, an Iowan could be arrested and jailed for receiving a treatment developed using this process. And so could that Iowan’s doctor.

On the other hand, the revised legislation now before the Legislature has the potential to favorably affect many Iowans. Last year, approximately 8,000 Iowans died of heart disease, making it the No. 1 cause of death in the state. Stroke killed 2,000 Iowans, making it the No. 3 cause of death here. In the decade between 1990 and 2000, the number of Iowans diagnosed with diabetes rose 43 percent. About 150,000 Iowans have been diagnosed with diabetes, which can lead to many other life-threatening conditions. It is now the eighth most-common cause of death in our state.

Stem-cell research holds great promise to treat these diseases and many more. Like other great research institutions, the UI can and should play a significant role in the development of these treatments. But we are facing a very real obstacle because of this law that has done little more than make world-class researchers hesitant about coming to Iowa.

Several states have already moved to authorize stem-cell research, fund it, or both. Among them are California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Washington, and Virginia.

In the meantime, while other states have encouraged and funded stem-cell research, Iowa has created an Environment hostile to this type of research, an environment in which using some of these treatments would be considered criminal behavior according to current law.

Imagine Iowans having to travel across the border to Illinois or Missouri or Wisconsin or Minnesota or Nebraska to get treatments because those treatments are illegal in our home state. That is exactly what we face under the current law.

This week, our Legislature has the opportunity to give Iowans equal access to therapies and treatments derived from the somatic cell nuclear transfer technique. We urge you to contact your legislators and encourage them to seize this historic opportunity. It may be the most important vote they cast in their careers.

Meredith Hay is the UI’s vice president for Research.

Jean Robillard is the vice president for medical affairs and dean of the Carver College of Medicine at the UI.

Both are world-renowned biomedical researchers. © Copyright 2007 Daily Iowan

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