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Mass. Senate Passes Stem Cell Bill That May Face Governor's Veto

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 31, 2005; Page A02

BOSTON, March 30 -- The Massachusetts Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday in favor of a bill to promote stem cell research in the state while outlawing human reproductive cloning and imposing a series of new regulations on the cutting-edge field.

The measure, which passed 35 to 2, has generated intense lobbying on both sides of the issue and will now go to the House, where opposition is expected to be stronger. It also faces a likely veto from Gov. Mitt Romney (R) if a key provision is not removed.

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The debate here comes as several states and other countries are competing to attract and establish life sciences research centers, while trying to address ethical concerns that led the Bush administration in 2001 to restrict federal funding for studies of stem cell lines in existence at the time.

In November, California residents overwhelmingly endorsed a ballot measure to commit $3 billion over 10 years to fund such research. And Maryland's House passed a bill this week that would set aside $25 million annually for that purpose.

Other states, including Wisconsin, New York and New Jersey, are debating whether to fund stem cell research. Meanwhile, Congress is expected to reconsider the Bush administration's federal funding limits later this year.

The Massachusetts bill authorizes no public money -- though Senate President Robert E. Travaglini (D) has said that may come later.

Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem (D) said during the debate: "Unless we act immediately and decisively, Massachusetts may be sitting on the sidelines wondering what can be done while other states are pioneering and promoting this important field."

Stem cells, which can be harvested from embryos, umbilical cords and some adult tissues, can develop into a wide range of body cells. Many researchers believe they could someday be used to repair or regenerate damaged organs or tissues, and lead to better treatments or even cures for such disorders as Parkinson's disease and diabetes.

Embryonic stem cells are widely believed to be the most versatile and therefore valuable for research purposes, but they are also the most controversial because extracting them destroys the embryo. Opponents, including some social and religious conservatives, also say the research could lead to the cloning of humans.

In Massachusetts, one of the nation's leading health care and biotechnology hubs, much attention has been focused on the bill's endorsement of a technique for harvesting stem cells known as therapeutic cloning -- or somatic cell nuclear transfer -- in which the nucleus of an adult cell is transferred into an unfertilized egg cell whose own DNA has been removed, causing it to divide.

Researchers say it allows them to better focus studies on certain diseases and to create stores of cells for treating particular patients.

Romney supports gleaning stem cells from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures, but he strongly opposes therapeutic cloning and called the Senate proposal a "radical cloning bill" in an ad campaign that began Wednesday.

"A genetically complete human embryo is brought into being. It is manipulated and experimented upon like so much research material. And then that emerging life is destroyed and discarded," the governor wrote earlier this month in the Boston Globe.

Overcoming a veto would require a two-thirds majority in the House, which is scheduled to take up the measure Thursday.

Backers of the bill said it includes many safeguards against abuse. It establishes penalties of as many as 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine for scientists engaging in human reproductive cloning -- the creation of babies through cloning.

It also requires institutions wishing to conduct stem cell research to obtain a license from the state and to review all projects annually.

Polls have shown substantial popular support for the bill.

"It would send a message to researchers that they have a future here," said Kevin Casey, director of government relations for the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, which is raising private money to bypass the federal restrictions.

Opposition has been led by antiabortion groups and the Roman Catholic Church, which recently began what it said is its first ad campaign in the secular media on a public policy issue.

A coalition of research-oriented organizations responded this week with its own television ad that shows diabetic children as a woman asks, "How can you look at these faces and not want to find a cure?"

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