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Langevin sees new hope for stem cell work

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Because of the spinal cord injury he suffered in an accidental shooting in 1980, U.S. Rep. James R. Langevin not only uses a wheelchair, he also has poor circulation and the equivalent of a broken thermostat for controlling his body temperature.

Today’s forecast for President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration calls for temperatures in the low 30s; with the wind blowing it will feel like the teens when members of Congress gather on a stage outside the Capitol. But Langevin said, “As much as I hate the cold weather, I wouldn’t miss this inauguration for the world.”

The Democratic congressman is looking forward to the Obama administration for many reasons. He talks with enthusiasm about housing, health care and cyber security. And he sees an opportunity to move ahead on an issue he has championed on the national stage — human embryonic stem cell research.

Langevin is a Catholic who opposes abortion rights in most cases, but he has been an outspoken advocate for expanding federal support for research with stem cells from surplus embryos donated by in-vitro fertilization clinics. He cosponsored a bill that President Bush vetoed after it passed the House and Senate.

As a senator, Obama joined Langevin in sponsoring the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007. And in the days leading up to Obama’s inauguration, there has been debate about whether Obama should quickly issue an executive order regarding stem cell research or whether Congress should plow through a divisive debate to enact a statute.

“My preference is we do both,” Langevin said. While he supports an executive order, he said, “I also want to see it codified into law so no president in the future can do what President Bush has done by restricting promising research because of some political ideology.”

Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Joe Pitts recently offered a glimpse of the debate that awaits in Congress. “Pro-life members in both caucuses will fight strongly to preserve sanctity of life ethics,” Pitts was quoted as saying in an International Herald Tribune article.

Langevin said the issue should not be cast in terms of the abortion debate. He said he would ask Pitts if he supports in-vitro fertilization, and he would ask, “What do you do with excess embryos left over after in-vitro fertilization? Some amounts are adopted by infertile couples, and I support that. But the only other option is to have them discarded as medical waste, and I think that’s irresponsible when there is potential for doing research that could potentially extend and preserve the quality of life for people facing Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, juvenile diabetes or spinal cord injuries.”

Langevin hopes such research could eventually help him. But, he said, “This isn’t about Jim Langevin. It’s about the millions of others [who] can be helped.”

Last year, researchers reported they could convert human skin cells into embryonic stem cells, raising the question of whether “the human embryo dispute was about to become moot,” the International Herald Tribune reported. But researchers said stem cells from human embryos were still “the gold standard” since much is unknown about stem cells derived from skin cells.

And Langevin said, “I still think it’s important to pursue all avenues of embryonic stem cell research, as long as it’s done ethically and responsibly. Under [National Institutes of Health] guidelines, scientists should make the decisions about what research holds the best promise.”

It remains to be seen whether Obama’s potential will be realized. But that’s what will draw Langevin and so many others into the cold air outside the Capitol today: Promise.

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