U of M stem cell researchers disagree with Gov. Pawlenty's position on research

In the lab
Culture trays containing human embryonic stems cells being viewed under a microscope and studied by developmental biologist James Thomson's research lab at the University of Wisconsin. The school has an extensive embryonic stem cell research initiative.
Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin

U of M stem cell researcher Dan Kaufman was disappointed when he heard that Gov. Pawlenty would veto stem cell legislation if it didn't contain restrictions on embryonic stem cell research.

"He seems to be backing away from what he said in the campaign where he...pledged to support all types of stem cell research, adult stem cells and human embryonic stem cell research," says Kaufman.

Last fall, Pawlenty said he thought President Bush and Congress should go further than they have on stem cell research. But in a speech to the Minnesota Family Council this week the governor said he does not support "wide-open embryonic stem cell research." He defined wide-open research as using embryos capable of producing human life.

Pawlenty did say he would be OK with using more stem cell lines than what the federal government has approved for research use. These new lines have already been created using private funds. The governor said he was in favor of using the additional lines, because the embryos have either already been destroyed or they are no longer viable.

"I think the governor needs some scientific and ethical education on what exactly he's talking about."

The governor also made another exception for embryonic research. Pawlenty said he would support research that extracted stem cells from embryos without damaging them.

"I think the governor needs some scientific and ethical education on what exactly he's talking about," says Meri Firpo, who is also an embryonic stem cell researcher at the U of M. "There seems to be a line he's drawing that is not based on current scientific understanding of the technology."

She says the governor's idea relies on an emerging technology that is not well understood yet.

"(It) is not clear that extracting cells from embryos does not damage them, and that is not a technology that is going to be able to be used efficiently anytime soon," Firpo says.

The governor's spokesman Brian McClung doesn't dispute Firpo's assessment. But he says that doesn't mean the idea is not worth investigating.

"With any new technology, I think it's being refined. And so there have been some reports that they have been able to do that...We're outlining as many options as exist right now," McClung said. McClung says the governor is looking for ways to move embryonic stem cell research forward. He says these ideas do that in a way that can satisfy most Minnesotans.

"No normal person cares about what we're talking about," says McClung. "They want to know, are you going to allow some additional research so that we can try to find cures? And the answer is, yes. And we think because of the new technologies that that can be done in a way that upholds the moral and ethical concerns that lots of people have."

But researchers like Firpo believe the governor's restrictions would be onerous. There's only so much she can learn from using existing stem cell lines, Firpo says. She wants to be able study a larger pool of stem cells to search for things like genetic problems.

Firpo says she also wants to be able to compete with researchers in other states that have approved funding for embryonic research.

"If he's planning to veto this bill it's a big disappointment, and it's a blow to stem cell research in the state of Minnesota. But I think that we will keep working," she says.

Firpo says she spends a lot of time trying to raise money privately to continue her research. She says if lawmakers approved the stem cell bill as it's currently written, she could spend a lot more time doing science.

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