A leading University of Michigan researcher said Tuesday the school now can accept private donations of unused human embryos for creating new stem cell lines.
On Wednesday, Dr. Eva Feldman and other researchers will be watching the progress of proposed legislation they fear could hamper their efforts to create those lines and find cures for many diseases.
More than a year after Michigan voters approved a ballot proposal that loosened restrictions on embryonic stem cell research by allowing people to donate embryos left over from fertility treatments, another heated debate begins.
On one side are the researchers, who have begun to ramp up their work with embryonic stem cells on many fronts. On the other are legislators who have introduced bills that would establish regulations such as reporting requirements, clarified language and penalties for violations related to Proposal 2, which voters approved 53 percent to 47 percent.
State Sen. Tom George, a Kalamazoo County Republican who leads the Senate Health Policy Committee meeting Wednesday related to the stem cell bills, said the legislation doesn't restrict or obstruct the voter-approved measure. But Feldman and others call it a constitutional violation.
"We would not be able to utilize those lines ... we create," Feldman told reporters after speaking to the Detroit Economic Club on Tuesday afternoon in downtown Detroit. She's director of the University of Michigan's A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute and principal investigator for the first human trial of a stem cell treatment for the fatal disorder commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease.
For a state considered a "mover and shaker now in the stem cell world," Feldman said, the legislation would be a "gigantic step back in terms of progress."
Feldman was introduced by Taubman, the retail mogul and philanthropist who donated millions to Proposal 2's passage and the research center that bears his name. He said the bills "try to destroy what the people of this state voted on" and that he hoped for a veto should it reach the desk of Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
"If opponents of progress succeed, they put a huge roadblock in our way," he said. "Michigan will once again be seen as a state unfriendly to science. ... We can't let that happen."
Feldman and Taubman went to Lansing earlier this year to meet with Lt. Gov. John Cherry and several lawmakers to discuss their opposition to the legislation.
George, who said he voted against Proposal 2 and is seeking the GOP's gubernatorial nomination next year, said university officials oppose any changes or restrictions to the law, and that they're being unrealistic.
"We're adding definitions and penalties for violations," George said. "What we're doing is very reasonable and not even as detailed as what has been done in Massachusetts and California."
The bills would put into state statute procedures for research and donations for stem cell research, as well as establish requirements for conducting research and reporting on it.
George said he expects the bills will move out of his committee Wednesday and on to the full Senate.
Sean Morrison, director of the university's Center for Stem Cell Biology, told The Associated Press in October that it's frustrating to hear Michigan's stem cell researchers lack oversight or regulation.
"Proposal 2 not only made Michigan one of three states that protects stem cell research in the state constitution, it also made Michigan one of three states to impose restrictions on stem cell research in the state constitution," he said.