Massachusetts legislators are bracing for a tough political battle over stem cell research following a surprise announcement by Republican governor Mitt Romney. Responding to a bill introduced this week in the state Senate, Romney said he's all for research with human embryonic stem cells, but "the law should prohibit all human cloning and the creation of new human embryos for the purpose of research." Scientists and lawmakers fear the announcement could hamper university and biotech research in the state.
While Massachusetts is home to many leading stem cell researchers, state laws bearing on research with human embryonic stem cells have been discouragingly vague, requiring county district attorneys to interpret the law for researchers in their jurisdictions. Efforts to clear the way have been quashed in the past by conservative Catholic politicians.
This year legislators hope to break through the impasse with a new bill, introduced by Senate president Robert Travaglini (D-Boston), that allows research on surplus embryos generated at fertilization clinics, and sets up a new ethics body to oversee the research. The definition of embryos in the bill explicitly includes those created by cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer, a procedure scientists say is crucial for realizing the promise of such research.
Scientists and lawmakers had been optimistic that they would get backing from Romney, who has expressed support of stem cell research and whose wife, Ann, has multiple sclerosis, one of the diseases that researchers hope to ultimately treat with stem cells.
After receiving the governor's response, Travaglini held a press conference in which Harvard stem cell researchers George Daley and Leonard Zon deplored efforts to "criminalize" what they characterized as vital research.
The governor's action was "very surprising to all of us," says Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technologies, Inc. in Worcester, which does research on somatic cell nuclear transfer. "We had all thought he would sign the legislation." Now, he says, "this throws everything up in the air."
A Senate committee will hold a public hearing on the bill on 16 February.
Text of Travaglini bill