Governor Pushes for Funding Of Stem Cell Research in Va.

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 31, 2005

RICHMOND, Aug. 30 -- Addressing a divisive debate that has roiled national politics, Gov. Mark R. Warner said Tuesday that Virginia should embrace embryonic stem cell research in an effort to find cures for debilitating illnesses.

Responding to a question asked on his monthly "Ask the Governor" show on WTOP radio, Warner (D) framed his support for the controversial research by referring to his mother and one of his daughters, who have illnesses that some scientists and national patient groups believe could eventually be cured by stem cells taken from days-old human embryos.

"I think we need to move aggressively in terms of taking advantage of stem cell research," Warner said during the hour-long show. An aide later confirmed that Warner was referring specifically to embryonic stem cell research, which has become the heart of the national debate.

"I have a daughter with juvenile diabetes. I've got a mom with Alzheimer's," Warner continued. "I know there are a host of other diseases that stem cell research could potentially unlock a cure for. I think we ought to do everything we can to advance the science in that area."

Warner, a popular governor who is thought to be considering a run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, suggested that before he leaves office in January, he might seek funding or push legislation to help develop cures for various conditions. He declined to say how much money he might allocate or what form any funding might take.

His director of communications, Ellen Qualls, said later that Warner is also hoping to explore other technologies besides stem cell research, including nanotechnology or a range of biosciences that could enhance the economic development benefits for state universities and businesses.

"He is clearly itching to do some large research and development initiative or several small ones woven together," Qualls said in an interview. She pointed out that Warner has addressed his support for stem cell research in the past. "What we're looking to do is find what is most likely to produce an impact in Virginia's economy and education community."

The fate of any Warner effort to advance stem cell research is unclear. So far, the issue has divided the legislature. During this year's session, lawmakers stripped provisions from a bill sponsored by Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), now a gubernatorial candidate, that would have allowed public funds to be used for embryonic stem cell research. Several years ago, the Senate defeated a measure that would have banned the research.

Embryonic stem cells are coveted for their potential to repair damaged organs, but the research has stirred controversy because the cells come from human embryos, which are destroyed in the process. Some scientists embrace the research because of the potential the cells hold for changing into any type of cell or tissue in the human body. Early work suggests that the new cells could help patients with cancer, diabetes and spinal cord injuries.

Opponents say the research is the moral equivalent of abortion because it entails the destruction of a human embryo. Others argue that the practice is essentially cloning.

A legislative panel is studying the ethical and scientific dimensions of the issue, and members are split on how the state should proceed.

"I think we should be moving in this direction," said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), a member of the committee, which has met twice this summer. "We have some research facilities in Virginia that could benefit from state funding that comes from stem cell research."

Another committee member, Del. John M. O'Bannon III (R-Henrico), a neurologist, said: "I want to take the science as far as possible, but I think the science is outstripping morals and values. I think we need some checks and balances on science."

Conservative groups in Virginia raised concerns about Warner's comments, saying that the science is unproved.

"Despite the rhetoric from some, embryonic stem cell research has brought no cures or treatments for anyone," said Victoria Cobb, executive director of the Family Foundation, a socially conservative group. "Taxpayers should not be forced to fund something that is not only ethically questionable, but has also failed to live up to the much-hyped promise."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company