2 states pass bills helping embryonic stem cell research

Connecticut and Massachusetts are the latest to ease restrictions, but questions remain about the ability of states to oversee such studies.

By Joel B. Finkelstein — Posted June 20, 2005

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Washington -- Some states are trying to pick up where the federal government has left off in funding stem cell research, but these efforts have raised concerns among scientists about the need for strict oversight of the cutting-edge research.

Connecticut and Massachusetts are the most recent states to pass laws designed to warm up the climate for studying embryonic stem cells. There were a total of 135 bills introduced across the nation this year addressing a range of issues relating to stem cell research, according to data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Connecticut measure explicitly allows for research into therapeutic cloning, nuclear transfer technology and embryonic stem cells, while barring any form of human cloning. The bill also provides $100 million in state funding for both adult and embryonic stem cell research.

The measure further requires physicians and others to inform patients of options for embryos left over from fertility treatment, including storing them, donating to another person or to researchers, or disposing of the cells.

The bill is among the few but growing number of state measures penned partially in response to restrictions on funding for embryonic stem cell research. Federal dollars are available for research only on embryonic stem cell lines that were established before August 2001, when President Bush announced the policy.

"I am very proud of what we accomplished," said Myron "Mike" Genel, MD, a professor of pediatrics at Yale University School of Medicine and co-founder of Connecticut United for Research Excellence, a nonprofit corporation that promotes bioscience research in the state.

Dr. Genel, an endocrinologist, said it was calls from grandparents of newly diagnosed diabetic children that motivated him to get involved in the issue. He described his role as a "marriage counselor," helping to bring together a unique statewide coalition of scientists and patient advocates who sought passage of the measure.

The new law makes Connecticut the first state to establish funding for stem cell research through the Legislature. Last November, California voters passed a resolution approving a $3 billion bond issue to support stem cell research there. Also last year, New Jersey's Legislature approved a measure lifting restrictions on stem cell research, to which funding was later added through administrative means.

In Massachusetts, lawmakers recently overrode Gov. Mitt Romney's veto to pass a law easing legal hurdles to conducting embryonic stem cell research in the state.

In February, the Massachusetts Medical Society testified in favor of the measure.

"The case for embryonic stem cell research is a strong one. The primary concern of physicians is the care of their patients. Few physicians rest comfortably thinking that their patients could potentially be cured of serious disease or disability through the results of medical research, but that such research was being unduly restricted," the group stated.

The veto override prompted a news conference by U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D, Mass.) at which he argued that this and other state measures send a message to Republican lawmakers and Bush that the American people support stem cell research. Kennedy is pushing for the Senate to take up a stem cell funding bill recently passed in the House.

Despite the efforts of federal lawmakers, state funding appears, for the time being, to be the future of stem cell research. While Bush's policy only limits funding for embryonic stem cells, its impact has touched other fields of stem cell research, said Debra Grega, PhD, executive director of the Center for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, a state-funded research institution in Ohio specializing in the study of non-embryonic stem cells.

"The federal government has woefully underfunded stem cell research across the board," she added.

Worries about ethics, oversight

The center currently studies adult and other types of stem cells with funding from Ohio's Third Frontier Fund, a state initiative using tobacco settlement money to support research into cutting-edge technology. When it launched the fund, the state contracted with the National Academy of Sciences to ensure that the research follows ethical guidelines.

But Dr. Grega worries that other states considering this approach might not have the experience or the resources to provide proper oversight of such research.

Efforts such as that in California seem to place a greater emphasis on research conducted in the private sector rather than an academic setting, raising questions about how much government supervision there will be, researchers said. "We're entering into a dangerous area," Dr. Grega said.

Connecticut has been looking to the NAS as well for guidance on providing appropriate supervision of this research, Dr. Genel said. But states will never have a supervisory infrastructure approaching that of the National Institutes of Health.

"My vast preference would be that [stem cell research] was being done with both the funding and oversight of the federal government, so that this research could be conducted under bright sunlight," he said.

Unfortunately, state funding is necessary to fill in the gaps in federal financing, he said.

While questions remain whether state funding will ever be enough, Dr. Genel said he takes the long view of the future of stem cell research.

"It's unlikely that we will see therapeutic returns in 10 years. We may not even see them in 50 years. But if we don't take advantage of the potential of stem cells now, we won't see the benefits even in 1,000 years," Dr. Genel said.

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State action

Both Connecticut and Massachusetts recently passed laws aimed at promoting embryonic and other forms of therapeutic stem cell research. Here's what the new laws do:


  • Establishes civil and criminal penalties for human cloning.
  • Requires physicians and others to inform patients of their options in disposing of unused embryos.
  • Bars payment for donating embryos.
  • Allows embryonic stem cell research under the supervision of an institutional review board.
  • Establishes the Stem Cell Research Fund to support all forms of stem cell research.


  • Establishes civil and criminal penalties for human cloning.
  • Bars "financial inducement" for donating embryos.
  • Allows embryonic stem cell research under the supervision of an institutional review board.

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