Even if the bill becomes law, the legislation will have little effect right away. State lawmakers are not designating any state money for stem cell research. But the measure would open the door to future public investment.
Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, the chief author of the bill, says stem cell research, including research on embryos, shows tremendous promise to develop treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer's disease. Cohen also says the science could keep the U of M on par with other leading research institutions. Other states, California in particular, have invested in stem cell research, to sidestep federal restrictions on using embryonic cells.
"Now with some of the parameters placed on the research and, to be blunt, some of the advances made by a number of other states around the country, Minnesota has become not secondary, it still is a significant research opportunity in this field, but Minnesota has not been leading the pack as it once was," Cohen said.
The U of M already conducts embryonic stem cell research but pays for it with private donations. The federal government allows a limited amount of federal money for the research but only on embryonic stem cell lines that were created before 2001.
President Bush used the only veto of his presidency on a bill that eased those restrictions.
University of Minnesota scientists say the limits have caused problems for them. They say they need to pay for separate lab space and equipment to do the different forms of research.
Social conservatives object to embryonic stem cell research because it prevents the embryo's potential development.
Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, says neither the U of M nor any other institution should not be involved in the research.
"I don't want to say Minnesota is a leader in the technology of embryonic stem cell research," he said. "I don't want to say that. I don't believe that that is anything to be proud of. I think that we can be proud of our state of being a leader in research and a leader of research of stem cell research of various kinds. I don't think we ought to say 'Let's be a leader in research that involves the destruction of life."
Others raised objections that the bill gives scientists the ability to harvest and grow embryos for research purposes only. Attempts to forbid the U of M from doing embryonic stem cell research failed.
Critics also argue that embryonic stem cell research has not shown as much promise as the research done on stem cells taken from bone marrow, cord blood and other tissue.
Sen. Ann Lynch, DFL-Rochester, says researchers should do both types of research. She says U of M researchers have proven to her that embryonic stem cell science is working in animal tests.
"They have used stem cells to cure mice with type 1 diabetes. They have restored brain cells in mice paralyzed by stroke or spinal trauma. There has been a reversal of the damage to the heart muscle as a result of a heart attack and other genetic diseases," she said.
Lynch also says the science offers hope to patients who have heart disease, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
But one senator who has Parkinson's voted against the bill. Sen. Ray Vandeveer, R-Forest Lake, announced last year that he has Parkinson's. He spoke against the bill on moral grounds.
"Even if this were successful, cannibalizing our young in order to provide benefits to us today is never the answer," Vandeveere said. "Abandoning morals and ethics for temporary personal gain isn't good for society."
The Senate has to give final approval to the bill but the outcome isn't expected to change. In any case, it will still be short of the two thirds needed to override a threatened veto by Gov. Pawlenty. The governor says he supports some embryonic stem cell research, but only if the procedure doesn't destroy the entire embryo.
"There are some limits that I hope they'll be respectful of as they finalize that bill," Pawlenty said. "But in its current form, the university is not restricted from pursuing this so it looks like a bill that allows them to do what they're doing which makes me wonder why they're doing it in the first place."
The full House is expected to vote on a similar bill in the next two weeks.