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Lawmakers oppose U of M’s stem cell research plan

Dozens of lawmakers are prepared to stand behind a bill that would deny public money to institutions that conduct research on human embryos. The bill, introduced Thursday, is a threat to the University of Minnesota, where officials announced this week they will pursue embryonic stem cell research.

St. Paul, Minn. — Many lawmakers say they reacted with a “raised eyebrow” to the news that the University of Minnesota is planning human embyronic stem cell research. For others at the Capitol, the university’s announcement elicited a stronger response.

In the case of Rep. Tim Wilkin, R-Eagan, it’s in the form of legislation that would deny public funds to any institution involved in such research.

“It’s clearly written to get their attention, and to make them make a decision that they’re not going to pursue this, and that maybe they should consult the Legislature before they pursue something like this,” he says.

Wilkin charges the university with plowing forward on the research without any public debate.

University of Minnesota Senior Vice President for Health Sciences Frank Cerra says the university did not make the decision to pursue the research overnight. He says over the past two and a half years, school officials spoke with hundreds of people in the public and private sectors, debating many aspects of what the research involves.

Cerra adds that in general, the university does not consult with lawmakers about its research agenda. He says research is driven by faculty.

“As long as that research is legal, which this is, is regulated, which this is, has the necessary approvals, which if we ever do this kind of research, they will have, and it’s an area of faculty interest, and the institution has the equipment and space to support it, we do the research. That’s the way it’s always been, and then we’re publicly accountable for the research we do,” Cerra said.

Cerra says the planned research on embryonic stem cells would compliment and expand the U’s already ground-breaking work with adult stem cells.

He says university scientists want to compare the adult and embryonic cells to discover which has the most promise for potentially curing diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer’s, muscular dystrophy, or spinal cord injury.

Cerra says the embryo research will be funded solely with private money.

He says the embryos will be donated by women who became pregnant through in vitro fertilization, and are donating their extra eggs to science. He says the embryos will be in what’s called the blasto Cyst stage – five days after fertilization.

“There are no recognizable organs, there are no recognizable tissues – there’s no beating heart, no nothing. It’s just five day old cells. But you can identify the stem cells, and take them out and put them in cultures.”

Rep. Wilkin says destroying human life, no matter how laudable the scientific goals, is morally ojectionable.

“I don’t think you can justify taking another life to enhance our own lives,” he said.

Wilkin says he has already signed on 28 co-authors to his legislation and expects more. He says although the Legislature does not have the authority to set university policy, he plans to use his bill to do just that.

“We write some pretty big checks to the university, and we can tie whether those checks get written to certain policies. And if they start doing things that put them in disfavor with the public, with the Legislature, the checks either can stop being written, or be written for much smaller amounts.”

Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s recent bonding proposal includes $35 million for bioscience research, much of it for the university.

The governor’s spokesperson declined to comment on the U’s decision to pursue embryonic stem cell research.

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