Both sides of the contentious debate over stem-cell research claim to be pro-life. That no doubt explains why two stem-cell bills taking opposite positions on the related issue of cloning won early approval in the state Legislature last week. Both bills could soon be headed to the desk of Gov. Kathleen Blanco -- who at press time said she has not yet made up her mind on the issue.
Last Wednesday, House Bill 803, sponsored by Rep. Gary Beard, R-Baton Rouge, gained approval by a House vote of 97-2. Beard's bill bans reproductive cloning, a process that essentially creates human babies from existing cells. We support that much of Beard's bill. Unfortunately, Beard's measure bans all cloning-based research. If passed, House Bill 803 would allow stem-cell research only with existing adult cells -- and the use of embryonic stem cells would be outlawed.
Scientists generally agree that embryonic stem cells represent the future of therapeutic medicine. Such cells might prove to be the key to unlocking cures to diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and diabetes, as well as solving genetic predispositions for numerous ailments -- from alcoholism to depression. Stem cells are master cells, capable of transforming into cells for any part of the body, curing health problems that might occur in the heart, brain, liver and pancreas. "The potential for the research possibilities and therapeutic value of using embryonic stem cells is almost unlimited," says Dr. William Claycomb, whose work at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans is devoted to using mouse embryonic stem cells to find cures for heart problems.
Claycomb supports Senate Bill 74, sponsored by Senate President Donald Hines, D-Bunkie. Hines, a physician, has crafted a bill that outlaws human cloning but allows stem-cell research. By press time, the Hines measure had cleared the House Health and Welfare Committee and was slated for consideration on the House floor. Meanwhile, state Sen. Art Lentini, R-Kenner, sponsored Senate Bill 873, which, like Beard's bill, outlaws both reproductive cloning and research. Last week, Lentini's bill was approved as a duplicate bill of House Bill 803, and it was passed by the Senate. As of press time, it was scheduled to go to the House for a vote.
"If these bills are passed into law, I might as well leave the state," says Claycomb, who believes he's the only scientist in Louisiana now working with embryonic stem cells. "I would compare it to passing a ban on the teaching of evolution in schools. It's that backward."
Supporters of embryonic stem-cell research include actor Christopher Reeve, who says its benefits might allow him to walk again. Nancy Reagan, struggling with the slow Alzheimer's-related decline of her husband, former President Ronald Reagan, also is a vocal proponent of stem-cell research. So is U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a prominent conservative.
Both nationally and in Louisiana, the debate over embryonic stem-cell research comes wrapped in the same emotions that surround discussions about abortion. Opponents call the practice slaughter, because embryos are destroyed during the research process. Embryonic stem cells are extracted from an egg that has been fertilized in vitro, which typically means in a petri dish in a fertility clinic. In August 2001, President George W. Bush signed into law a compromise measure that allows only 78 existing embryonic stem-cell lines, all of which originated from in vitro fertilization, to be used in research conducted with federal money.
Many scientists find Bush's low threshold too limiting. There is speculation that Bush may be softening his stance on the ban, perhaps in response to the argument that hundreds of thousands of stem-cell lines created in fertility clinics would be destroyed without first serving science.
In response to Bush's federal restrictions, California and New Jersey have enacted legislation to encourage embryonic stem-cell research at state-supported institutions. While hopes for medical cures are clearly part of the states' motivations, economics also plays a role. New Jersey lawmakers have set aside $50 million to fund stem-cell research projects. California voters in November will face a ballot initiative to approve $3 billion in bond sales for state universities to conduct similar research. Proponents of the California measure say it will save lives and reduce health care costs. In addition, private companies, aware of the massive profits tied to breakthroughs in biomedicine, are now looking to relocate or establish offices in New Jersey and California.
New Orleans officials and business leaders tout the city as an ideal home to the growing biomedical industry -- a cornerstone of economic development plans for this area. Passage of a law allowing embryonic stem-cell research would clearly give a needed boost to that sector of the local economy. The real benefit of embryonic stem-cell research is not measured in dollars, however. It's about saving lives. Stem-cell research has enormous potential to help cure diseases that cripple and kill thousands each year in Louisiana. We therefore encourage Gov. Blanco and lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 74. In doing so, they will place Louisiana at the forefront of a promising medical frontier -- and they will help save lives.