Toying with Science

The Massachusetts state legislature should stand up to Governor Romney’s pandering

The race for stem cell research money is on. In the last six months, the legislatures and voters of California, New Jersey, and North Carolina have earmarked billions of public dollars for private research into possible therapeutic—that is, disease-curing—uses of embryonic stem cells. As a dozen other states consider similar proposals, the competition between states for the companies conducting stem cell research is quickening. But even though Massachusetts has not yet considered opening its coffers to stem cell research, Gov. W. Mitt Romney announced Thursday that he will seek to ban a crucial method of stem cell research in Massachusetts. We implore the Massachusetts state legislature to defeat Romney’s proposal so that embryonic stem cell research can continue unhindered in Massachusetts.

Not only would Romney’s proposal effectively squelch efforts to lure stem cell researchers to Massachusetts, it would throw a substantial hurdle in the path of existing research in Massachusetts, including Harvard’s planned Stem Cell Institute. And the roadblocks stem cell researchers face are already large. President Bush has limited federal funding to only a few stem cell lines, and it was recently discovered these meager sources are irreversibly contaminated in a manner that makes them unsuitable for therapeutic use in humans. Short on money and short on stem cells, researchers do not need yet another governmental restriction on their work.

Furthermore, the proposed restrictions would curtail a vital aspect of embryonic stem cell research. A large portion of embryonic stem cell research is currently conducted on discarded embryos from fertility clinics, and the proposed rules would not affect this research. Instead, Romney has asked the legislature to ban the cloning of nuclear material, that is, the insertion of foreign DNA into a host egg. Scientists believe that mastering this technique is crucial for any stem cell therapy to eventually be realized, since any tissues grown from stem cells—the ultimate goal of stem cell research—need to be custom-grown to match the DNA of the patient. Preventing nuclear cloning destroys any theoretical therapeutic benefit that embryonic stem cell research might ever generate.

At a glance, it is puzzling that Romney would pursue such restrictions, which pit him against both the formidable Boston biotechnology community and an overwhelming Democratic majority in the Massachusetts State Legislature. We speculate that this move may be aimed at nothing more than building arch-conservative credentials for the purposes of a 2008 presidential run. Romney is certainly entitled to hold any sort of personal opinion he chooses about the morality of embryonic stem cell research, but wasting the legislature’s time and energy in order to add another line to his résumé disrespects both the very office that he holds and the noble goals of embryonic stem cell research.