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Travaglini plans to push stem cell research

Effort is bid to boost industry, retain firms

Seeking to boost the state's biotechnology industry and prevent a feared exodus of companies to other locales, Senate President Robert E. Travaglini will make the promotion of stem cell research in Massachusetts a centerpiece of his economic development plan, expected to be unveiled this week.

The provisions closely follow a proposal debated in the Legislature in May, but which failed to get out of committee. In an interview, Travaglini said that attaching a stem cell research proposal to the larger economic development plan is a way to ensure it becomes law.

"There are significant health breakthroughs that stem cells can make possible that we can no longer ignore," said Travaglini, an East Boston Democrat. "This presents an opportunity to accelerate that, and putting it in this bill enhances the potential for passage."

The standalone bill would have created a fund to support stem cell research in the Commonwealth. Given the state's shaky finances, that effort has been scrapped. Travaglini's plan "is simpler, and it's revenue-neutral," said State Senator Cynthia Stone Creem, Democrat of Newton, who sponsored the earlier bill.

Stem cells are tiny, undifferentiated cells found in human embryos, the blood from newborns' umbilical cords, and some adult tissues. They have the unique ability to develop into any type of tissue in the body, such as muscle, organs, or nerves. Scientists and biotech companies are developing therapies using stem cells to repair and regenerate damaged tissue and organs -- such as spinal cords severed in accidents causing paralysis.

But the research also draws impassioned criticism because many stem cells come from human embryos grown, but not used, for fertility treatments. Many believe it is wrong to destroy the embryos, which theoretically can develop into fetuses, for scientific research.

Travaglini's proposal, like the one in May, would explicitly permit the use of such embryos in research, but would ban the use of cloning to create human beings.

The measure drew praise from industry leaders who have urged the state to act ever since California passed a bill supporting stem cell research in 2002.

"We're really pleased the Senate has addressed the stem cell issue," said Stephen Mulloney, director of policy and public affairs for the Masachusetts Biotechnology Council. "The language has both significant real value to the industry as well as symbolic value. It sends a statement that the Commonwealth welcomes cutting-edge innovation, in this case in the form of very promising research into regenerative medicine."

The bill would also enable young biotechnology companies to take advantage of a number of existing tax incentives. Companies losing money would be able to trade tax credits earned from research and development investments, or from net losses, to profitable companies for cash.

Many young companies cannot make use of the incentives as currently enacted, because they don't yet have profits and don't pay state income taxes that might be mitigated by the tax credits.

The economic development package will also contain a proposal to use some of the state's tobacco fund money to help doctors pay for equipment enabling them to issue prescriptions electronically. The tobacco money would be lent to doctors so they could buy the equipment, which some believe can save money and eliminate inefficiency. The program would be administered by the Health and Education Facilities Agency.

Separately, the Travaglini bill is expected to contain a measure that would boost consumer spending by cutting some sales taxes, according to several sources who have been briefed on the bill.

The Massachusetts House proposed an economic stimulus bill in July that would use $110 million from the state's tobacco settlement funds to create incentives for business. The Senate's plan would also require about $110 million in funding.

If Travaglini's plan is approved by the Senate, a joint committee would create a compromise between the two versions to be sent to Governor Mitt Romney for approval.

Jeffrey Krasner can be reached at krasner@globe.com.

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