We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Scientists
By Glenn Weiser
Metroland, April 28, 2005

I re-edited this piece after publication on a couple of style points only-GW

Cloning prohibition in stem-cell bill could drive research and jobs out of New York

Eager to keep New York competitive in the stem-cell research race with California, New Jersey, Massachusetts and other states, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) introduced a bill on March 1 that would create an institute to fund biotechnological research, including stem-cell work, with $100 million of taxpayer money for its first year. 

The same day, State Sen. Nicholas A. Spano (R-Yonkers) announced his intention to field a similar measure in the Senate. Another stem-cell research bill was already proposed in mid-January by Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan). Gov. George E. Pataki, while wondering where the funding for the initiative would come from, called the proposals “attractive.”

From all this, it may sound like the Empire State is poised to take a leading role in stem-cell research and the new treatments and possible cures for afflictions from Alzheimer’s disease to spinal cord injuries that it promises.

Guess again. Differences between the Democratic and Republican versions of the bills on the controversial issue of cloning embryonic stem cells for therapeutic rather than reproductive purposes could keep New York off the national biotech stage. If that happens, say researchers, the state will suffer a much-feared brain drain as its top researchers get recruited away to states that have already approved therapeutic cloning. Thousands of expected jobs may also fail to materialize.

Silver’s and Krueger’s bills (A6300 and S433A respectively) support therapeutic cloning and ban reproductive cloning. Scientists are particularly interested in therapeutic cloning, also known as “somatic cell nuclear transfer,” because they believe it holds the greatest promise for unlocking the secrets of several major diseases. “SCNT has tremendous potential value as a research tool,” Dr. Ross A. Frommer, associate dean for government affairs at Columbia University Medical Center, said in a telephone interview. “If we could study something like Alzheimer’s disease in the petri dish we could develop a much greater understanding of it.”

Traditionally, one of the most common sources for embryonic stem cells for research has been extra embryos (at the very early blastocyst stage) created by in-vitro fertilization for infertile couples. Therapeutic cloning, however, allows embryonic stem cells to be grown from an egg cell and the nucleus of an adult donor cell. It does not require a fertilized human embryo.

A poll commissioned last month by the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research showed that 60 percent of the public supports embryonic-stem-cell and therapeutic-cloning work. Religious conservatives, however, consider this type of research a “culture of life” issue along with abortion and human euthanasia and oppose it. In a recent New York Times column, Maureen Dowd reported that Pope Benedict XVI thinks it should be limited and has called cloning “more dangerous than weapons of mass destruction.”

Whether Spano, who is Catholic, shares the concerns of religious conservatives on this issue is uncertain. But his March 1 press release says his forthcoming bill would “strictly prohibit cloning of any type,” and an April 5 news roundup on the Web site of the influential New York State Catholic Conference also reports that Spano “does not support cloning of any kind.”

Buttonholed at a popular Albany restaurant a few weeks ago, Spano confirmed that his bill would not allow therapeutic cloning and would instead fund research only on adult stem cells. “That’s what’s right for right now,” he said. Repeated calls to his office requesting further comment were not returned.

In addition to hurting New York’s prospects in the biotech race, such a prohibition, if passed into law, could also have the effect of shutting down, or even criminalizing, privately funded research already in progress at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Cornell University and other institutions in the state. Reacting to this possibility, Frommer said Columbia opposes any effort to ban somatic cell nuclear transfer.

Assemblyman Pete Grannis (D-Manhattan) shares this view. ”We obviously want to have as open and welcoming an environment as possible to make sure that we are not out of sync with the initiatives that are underway in other states,” he said.

But that has already begun. Last month, Albany’s Business Review reported that the state of New Jersey has started headhunting scientists working in New York institutions. The Business Review noted that ads have run in The New York Times and other publications “touting New Jersey’s $150 million investment in stem cell research,” and that “New Yorkers for the Advancement of Medical Research said New York is at risk of losing some of its scientific brain power because California, New Jersey and other states have made commitments to stem cell research.”

Whether these losses can be stanched depends on the fates of the stem-cell bills in the Legislature. Silver’s bill is a shoo-in in the Assembly. But Krueger, reached for comment by phone, doubted that Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno (R-Brunswick) would even allow her bill to come up for a vote in the Senate. “In a world of rational politics, my Republican colleagues who support stem-cell research would ask to cosponsor my legislation or ask to take it and use it under their own names, and I would let them do so,” she said.

Spano, a Republican, has a much better chance of getting a vote on his bill. But if, as seems likely, his legislation passes containing a prohibition on therapeutic cloning, it would then have to be reconciled with the Assembly’s version before being sent to the governor for signing. It appears doubtful, however, that either Spano or Silver would give any ground on this hot-button provision, leaving prospects for stem-cell research in New York looking dim.

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                          ©2005 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.

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