Dec 3, 2007

Schwarz. says prognosis for opposition to stem cell research is terminal

BRIGHTON -- As a medical doctor, former Republican U.S. Congressman Joe Schwarz has a calm bedside manner, but he minces no words when he speaks about his support of embryonic stem cell research and his condemnation of the people who oppose it.

“The disingenuousness on this issue by some organizations has been stunning, just stunning,” he told an audience of about 30 people gathered at the Livingston County Democratic Headquarters last week for a seminar on stem cell research sponsored by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Michigan Citizens for Stem Cell Research and Cures (MCSCRC).

Embryonic stem cells are primitive cells that can be generated in a Petri dish after an egg is fertilized by sperm in a dish in a fertility clinic, and they have the potential to cure countless diseases, such as autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis; cancers; cardiovascular diseases; circulatory and respiratory diseases; spinal cord injuries; infectious diseases like HIV; metabolic diseases like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease; muscular dystrophies; neurological diseases of adulthood like Alzheimer's disease and Lou Gehrig's disease; and neurological diseases of childhood like Asperger's syndrome and autism. The embryos are never implanted in a woman’s body, and the embryos are routinely discarded by fertility clinics.

Schwarz said the majority of Michigan residents support embryonic stem cell research, and the opposition is another example of “tyranny of the minority.”

Federal law allows embryonic stem cell research, but it bans federal funding of it. But Michigan has even tougher restrictions, and Michigan law makes conducting the research a felony. Rep. Andy Meisner, D-Ferndale, introduced House Bills 4616-4618 in April that lift that restriction, but the bills are stalled in the Judiciary Committee.

“There are only six or seven states that are as behind as Michigan,” Schwarz said. “Michigan – with our excellent research universities and Michigan being a populous state – is akin to a jack-rabbit state like South Dakota.”

Life sciences have been pushed as a way to diversify Michigan’s economy and create jobs, but neighboring states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois not only allow embryonic stem cell research, they are actively promoting the funding of the research. Schwartz said the University of Michigan is losing some of its top faculty and researchers to states that allow the research, like Florida, California and Texas.

“The train is leaving the station,” he said. “I want to be on it, I want Michigan to be on it and I want our research universities to be on it.”

The federal Castle-Degette bill – the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act -- that allows federal funding of embryonic stem cell research has passed Congress twice with bipartisan support, but President Bush has vetoed it. Schwarz said the simple bill will pass again, and he said the next president, no matter who it is or from what party – will sign it into law.

“This bill says a few things,” he said. “It says excess blastocysts (an inner cell mass containing cells that will form the embryo) can be donated to a facility doing embryonic stem cell research under guidelines set up by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.”

Schwarz also said the restrictions are contributing to job loss when research goes to other countries that do not have very stringent ethical laws on such research in place.
“As you know, stem cell research is going on offshore,” he said. “We are being beaten by Korea and Japan where we cannot guarantee research will be done as ethically as it will in the United States.”

Marcia Baum, the executive director of the MCSCRC, said she expects the issue to be on the ballot next November. The MCSCRC has a wide variety of people on its board, including doctors, directors of associations that advocate for cures for various diseases, and business and academic leaders. The advisory committee has both Democrats and Republican leaders, such as Democratic U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, Schwarz and Mel Larsen, a former Republican state representative and the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party.

“Most people don’t understand the science, most people don’t understand what stem cells can do and most people don’t understand what’s going on in Washington,” she said.

The opposition to embryonic stem cell research has come primarily from the Michigan Catholic Conference and Michigan Right to Life. The MCSCRC has a speaker’s bureau that has been going to churches, service clubs and other groups to talk about stem cells. Much of the opposition has been because of claims that it will promote human cloning and that it is destroying human life.

“Some people want to call it the big ‘C,’ cloning,” she said. “It’s the fear of Dolly the sheep.”

Schwarz said the recent discovery that the possibility exists embryonic stem cells can be created without having to destroy an embryonic blastocyst shows promise, but the cells have the potential for developing cancer. He said regardless of what happens with these cells, research with embryonic stem cells need to continue.

However, proponents say there is no cloning involved, and no woman will be allowed to sell her eggs because the law will make harvesting eggs illegal.

“None of the stem cells are coming from abortion clinics,” said Matt Evans, the chair of the Livingston County Democratic Party. “That’s the evil rumor out there.”

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