On February 16, the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies convened a public hearing to examine several bills related to stem cell research. These bills were filed to bring forth public comment on whether Massachusetts should allow the scientific and research community to use human embryonic stem cells as a method to help fight diseases.
Senate President Robert Travaglini is the lead sponsor of several filed bills that would allow stem cell research in Massachusetts. Basically, the legislation would amend a 1974 law that some believe restricts the Massachusetts scientific community from conducting research on stem cells. There has been some confusion that the legislation attempts to fund stem cell research, but none of the filed bills include a mechanism for a state appropriation or funding for this type of research. The Massachusetts legislature must first come to a decision if it will authorize stem cell research before it decides what future role the state will play in funding this type of research.
Not being a scientist myself, I’ll try to explain the major portion of the bill. Basically, there are two types of stem cells: adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells are obtained from umbilical cords or bone marrow. Embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos and would be obtained from donated embryos that are no longer needed for in-vitro fertilization treatments. These would be called human embryonic stem cells. Ironically, stem cells have been studied by the scientific community for more than 20 years.
The storm of the controversy centers on the part of the proposed legislation that would allow a scientific procedure called “somatic cell nuclear transfer,” sometimes referred to as “therapeutic cloning,” to be used in Massachusetts.
This type of research, where the nucleus of an embryo is replaced by the nucleus of another cell which is then stimulated to divide, has interested the scientific and medical community in studying human embryonic stem cells because of the future potential for treating diseases and other medical maladies in human beings. Some scientists believe that somatic nuclear cell transfer is on the cutting edge of medical breakthroughs that could eventually lead to the cure of a number of diseases, including Parkinson Disease, diabetes, paralysis from spinal cord injury, and heart disease.
While not totally disavowing stem cell research, Governor Romney is expected to veto any legislation that allows the use of somatic nuclear cell transfer in Massachusetts because it results in the destruction of the embryo. The Governor does, however, support the use of human embryonic stem cells obtained from another type of procedure, called altered nuclear transfer, because this technique does not destroy the embryo and does not require the cloning of stem cells. The legislature would need a two-third majority to override any veto by the governor.
The legislature realizes that any authorization to use human embryonic stem cells for scientific purposes must come with guidelines that establish ethical laboratory standards and the protection of individuals who donate embryos if legislation is passed allowing the use of human embryonic stem cell research in Massachusetts. The proposed legislation would create an Institutional Review Board to establish an ethical oversight panel to monitor the use of human embryonic stem cells that have been donated for this type of scientific research.
Another issue that must be cleared up is the discrepancies when using the term “cloning” to describe these complicated scientific techniques. There are very big differences between the meanings of “therapeutic cloning” and “reproductive cloning,” and these terms are not interchangeable and perhaps a better definition needs to be developed to distinguish one from the other.
Reproductive cloning refers to the process of creating a total, similar copy of a living thing from another living thing, such as in the case of Dolly the sheep. Therapeutic cloning is the process of growing one’s own cells to be used for a medical purpose in that person alone.
Rep. Atsalis’s column appears in the third issue of each month.
By Rep. Demetrius Atsalis