Ehrlich's Stem Cell Request Sparks Furor in Annapolis

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. shook up a volatile debate over stem cell research yesterday, announcing on the eve of lawmakers' return to Annapolis that he will propose spending $20 million in state money on the science.

Paul E. Schurick, the governor's communications director, said Ehrlich (R) will leave it to a state-created technology development corporation to determine whether grants should be made to researchers conducting work on embryonic stem cells or on less controversial forms of the research.

Republicans in the General Assembly blocked a bill last year that would have authorized state funding for embryonic research, which supporters say holds great promise in treating Parkinson's disease, juvenile diabetes and other conditions.

Opponents say the work is unethical, however, because it involves destruction of human embryos, and they argue that research on other types of stem cells, such as those derived from bone marrow, might prove more successful. Ehrlich supported embryonic research as a congressman but remained largely silent during last year's debate.

"The governor will have no restrictions on the use of this money," Schurick said. "He's never been troubled by the ethical challenges of stem cell research."

Republicans who threatened a filibuster against the bill last year said yesterday that they were unclear of the practical implications of the proposal. "I certainly would prefer it if he said you shouldn't fund the destruction of human embryos," said Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris (Baltimore County). He said it is possible, however, that those making grants might determine that adult stem cells holds more promise.

Harris and other Republicans said the governor's proposal is preferable to last year's bill, which attempted to steer as much as $23 million toward embryonic research, which is limited on the national level.

Supporters of the legislation, who rallied outside the State House earlier in the day, had varied reactions to the announcement. "Sorry, no cigar yet," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger (D-Baltimore County), the lead Senate sponsor. "That money he's talking about can go into all sorts of research that can already be funded at the federal level."

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore) said Ehrlich's support is welcome and will alter the debate significantly. But Rosenberg said legislation is still required to make clear what type of stem cell research should receive priority and other criteria for distributing the money.

House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell (Calvert) suggested the conservative lawmakers might also try to restrict use of the money to research not involving embryos.

Schurick said Ehrlich will also propose spending $12 million to build a research facility in a biotech park in Baltimore.

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