Senate is knee-deep in stem-cell debate

Dem and GOP versions of stem cell bills duke it out

At a time when state lawmakers are falling over themselves with incentives to bring new industry to Georgia, Senate Republicans are considering a ban on certain types of stem-cell research that could have precisely the opposite effect.

Charles Craig, president of the Georgia Biomedical Partnership, warns that a GOP-backed bill could cause the state to lose current bids for about $1.4 billion in federal research grants and biotechnology facilities.

“If this passes, it puts at risk Georgia’s life-sciences industry,” says Craig, who fears a brain-drain in a state that needs all the gray matter it can get.

The debate has become so heated that on Monday, Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, unexpectedly yanked his Senate Bill 596 back into the Science and Technology Committee, which he chairs. Shafer, who had argued in the bill for a strong ban on human cloning, said he was feeling pressure to remove that provision.

On Tuesday, he did remove the reference to a ban on cloning — but not before calling a Democrat’s rival piece of legislation “the most ghastly bill introduced in the General Assembly in our lifetime.”

The controversy centers around a disagreement over whether a cutting-edge process for creating embryonic stem cells known as therapeutic cloning can be equated with cloning human beings. Shafer views the process, which many biologists see as the most promising avenue in stem-cell research, as a “slippery slope.”

“I don’t want us to create human clones that will be destroyed or harvested for their organs,” Shafer told CL after a second day of sometimes vitriolic committee hearings that saw Christian Coalition leader Sadie Fields perched in a reserved front-row seat. “I have ethical qualms about stem-cell research.”

But Marie Csete, director of the Human Embryonic Stem Cell Core Facility at Emory’s School of Medicine, tells CL that nothing in the rival legislation allows the creation of a human clone.

Sen. David Adelman, D-Decatur, who introduced the earlier stem-cell bill last month, says there’s a big distinction between the therapeutic cloning of cells for use in disease research and cloning human beings.

“I don’t think this process creates a new human embryo and neither does [U.S. Senate Majority Leader] Bill Frist [of Tennessee] or Nancy Reagan,” he says. “This research is very important to patient groups, and if Gov. Perdue signs Shafer’s bill, it could help defeat him.”

Rather than run the risk of giving a Democrat a boost during an election year, Shafer buried Adelman’s stem-cell bill, co-opted much of its language, and introduced his own version — tweaking the name only slightly, from the “Search for the Cure Act” to the more sunny “Delivering the Cure Act.”

Both measures would create a new state commission on biomedical research, as well as a “bank” for donated cord blood and unused embryos from fertility treatments.

But Shafer’s added measure to ban therapeutic cloning reveals a distrust of science that Craig says will tar Georgia as a biomedical backwater and help steer research grants to more hospitable states.

Georgia is currently wooing Solvay Pharmaceuticals to build a $600 million flu vaccine plant here, as well as trying to lure an agra-defense research facility to the University of Georgia, and another multimillion-dollar biotech plant, says Craig, who fears that these and future projects could be lost if Shafer’s bill is approved.

While Adelman’s bill would not have the same negative impact, Craig is hoping the Legislature will slow down and study the issue more before adopting any new restrictions.

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