COLUMBUS - An Ohio State University researcher who expects delivery within weeks of human embryonic stem cells is battling legislation he fears could endanger his hopes for a research center at the school.
"If this passes, it would be virtually impossible for Ohio to recruit the best and brightest scientists," said Douglas Kaniss, OSU professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and medical engineering. "This is sort of the Holy Grail of biology."
The Republican-controlled Ohio House inserted language into a proposed two-year state budget that would prohibit use of Third Frontier research and development grants for activities involving human embryonic stem cells or embryonic tissue.
The language was added just as the state plans to put a question to voters on the Nov. 8 ballot asking voters to approve $2 billion in borrowing for high-tech, public works, and job-creation projects. Of that, $500 million would be reserved for Third Frontier, Gov. Bob Taft's pet bond issue that lost at the polls two years ago.
The $51.3 billion budget bill is in the Senate, where it is expected to reach a vote in early June. Taft spokesman Mark Rickel said the governor is still studying the language.
Mr. Kaniss has received approval to get a vial of cells from one of the original 64 embryonic stem-cell lines that President Bush determined in 2001 could be eligible for federal research grants. The University of Wisconsin holds the stem cell line from which OSU would receive its cells.
Mr. Bush has ordered - and the National Institutes of Health has regulated - that no U.S. funds could be used for embryonic stem lines created after those lines in 2001. The Ohio House-passed language would take that further, when it comes to state funding, barring the use of Third Frontier dollars for any human embryonic stem cell and tissue research.
Mr. Kaniss said he fears the broad language could not only affect embryonic stem cells but research under way at the university using placenta and other fetal-related tissue.
OSU's current research is funded by both federal and internal departmental dollars.
Supporters of embryonic stem cell research argue it ultimately holds more potential than the less controversial research involving adult stem cells. Typically taken from fertility clinic embryos that would otherwise be discarded, embryonic stem cells could be directed to develop into specific cells, such as pancreatic cells that could be used to treat diabetes or spinal cord cells to repair injury.
Rep. Mike Gilb (R., Findlay) had pushed the ban in the House because he'd heard the rumors that OSU was about to enter the human embryonic stem-cell arena. He said the language is designed to affect only Third Frontier dollars and no other state funding research source. He took issue with the argument that the research would be conducted only on embryos that would be discarded.
"Currently, the focus may be on existing embryonic cells," he said. "The concern is that once that door is opened, we would be creating embryos and destroying them for research. That would be crossing the line."
He noted that funding could continue for adult stem-cell research, which he suggested has shown more promise.
Jerry Friedman, director of government relations for the university medical center, said human embryonic stem-cell research would represent a small part of the stem-cell research conducted at the university.
Mr. Friedman said the school has not decided whether this was a research area it wants to aggressively pursue and has not taken an official position on the proposed budget language. But he said he objected to the General Assembly interference. "To have the General Assembly weigh in and parse what is or is not appropriate research is not the way it ought to go," he said. "They are there to steer rather than row. The jury is still out on this."
Mr. Kaniss said the school is in the early stages of a proposal for a tissue engineering and regenerative center, a joint project with the medical center and engineering school. If the idea comes to fruition, it might someday seek brick-and-mortar dollars through Third Frontier's capital component. That couldn't happen if the ban survives in its current form.
Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University is also involved in the research, conducted separately from a new research center funded in part by Third Frontier capital dollars.
"Gov. Taft has made the case that this was absolutely essential to launch Ohio into the new millennium, to compete for the best and brightest, to create high-paying and high-profile jobs," said Mr. Kaniss. "If a state is trying to create entrepreneurship, business growth, and jobs, why would you block an entirely exciting area of investigation? What scientist in his right mind would start a company in Ohio?"
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