Patrick Pushes Stem Cells

Gov. Deval L. Patrick ’78 announced last Friday that he will push to reverse restrictions on stem cell research that were imposed by his predecessor, Mitt Romney.

The restrictions—which were drafted by Romney’s aides and adopted last August by the state’s Public Health Council—limited the stem cell lines that Massachusetts researchers were allowed to use.

Romney’s critics have argued that the restrictions run counter to the intent of a law passed in 2005 by the state legislature that was intended to promote stem cell research in the state.

According to Kevin Casey, Harvard’s senior director of federal and state relations, the current rules effectively prevent Massachusetts researchers from using stem cell lines created in other states.

“The regulation has created a cloud around Massachusetts researchers who might be interested in collaborating with other researchers around the country,” Casey said.

Patrick has asked the Public Health Council to review the policy. The members of the council that originally approved the restrictions in 2006 are being replaced in part of a legislature-approved overhaul of the council.

Last Friday, the governor stressed his commitment to the advancement of stem cell research.

“I believe that life sciences should be guided by science and not ideological politics,” Patrick said in a statement.

Grousbeck Professor of Pediatrics Leonard I. Zon, a member of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute’s executive board, said on Wednesday that Patrick’s push for a policy reversal indicates an important “change in climate” in the state’s view toward stem cell research.

But he said the change will not lead to a huge influx of new embryonic stem cell lines.

“This policy may be more relevant in the future when we are studying specific diseases that require the formation of a stem cell line from parents that have the same disease,” Zon said in an interview.

The governor is currently exploring options to foster research with state funding. During his campaign, Patrick promised to invest $500 million in stem cell research, specifically in centers of public higher education. As a private institution, Harvard’s chance of receiving state funding is unclear.

“We want to bring stem cell research to the point where it is therapeutically useful,” Zon said. “The cost of the project is very high since we are right at the beginning of the field, so state funding would be very beneficial.”

George Q. Daley ’82, an associate professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at the Harvard Medical School and a Harvard Stem Cell Institute executive board member, said in an interview that he is concerned about losing young talent to states with more funding and resources for stem cell research. Earlier this week, the New York state legislature appropriated $600 million to fund stem cell studies.

“Funding is becoming a competitive issue among states,” Daley said. “The concentration of talent and funding in states like New York make it a very attractive area for investigators just beginning research with stem cells.”

Daley said he also supported the idea of a merit-based system for distributing state funding.

“We have a vibrant private sector here in Massachusetts, where some of the best science is being done,” he said. “We have to remember that the most important goal in funding should be the advancement of science.”

Casey said that besides pushing for state funding, Harvard is also advocating other policy changes, such as loosening the restrictions for donating eggs and securing abandoned embryos for research purposes. Casey added that funding from the state could be invested in instrumentation that would benefit both public and private institutions.

“The current segregation between federally funded equipment and privately funded equipment has created a sort of logistical nightmare,” Casey said.

—Staff writer Anupriya Singhal can be reached at asinghal@fas.harvard.edu.

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