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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Health authorities approve stem cell rules

By Stephen Smith, Globe Staff

Public health regulators today reversed a controversial limit on stem cell research that was imposed during the administration of former Governor Mitt Romney and that led scientists to fear criminal penalties if they conducted certain kinds of laboratory work.

The unanimous vote by the Public Health Council -- whose members were appointed by Romney's successor, Governor Deval Patrick -- should restore the state's reputation as being hospitable to the work of stem cell scientists, members of the council said. The repeal of the Romney-imposed rule involved altering a single sentence in the regulations.

"It's important for us to be as competitive as possible and allow research to occur," said Public Health Council member Harold Cox, an associate dean at the Boston University School of Public Health. "Changing that one sentence seems to make a world of difference to the people doing the research."

The restrictions, drafted by Romney's aides and adopted in August 2006, had spurred criticism from scientists, leading legislators, and even Romney's lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey. Critics pointed to the stem cell rules as an example of the Republican governor's use of public health policy to strengthen his appeal to social conservatives as he embarked on a presidential bid.

Patrick in March had called for the restrictive regulation to be reversed as part of his initiative to strengthen the state's position in the burgeoning field of stem cell research.

The rule adopted during Romney's administration stated that embryos could not be created "with the sole intent of using the embryo for research." The pivotal part of that rule -- and the part that troubled scientists -- was the word "using."

When the Legislature in 2005 established a framework for conducting stem cell research in the state, it made clear that it did not want the creation of embryos for the purpose of scientific exploration. But the Legislature did not say anything about scientists using stem cell lines developed outside of the state, potentially from embryos created for scientific purposes.

For example, in New York, scientists hunting for treatments for a disease can create embryos using sperm and eggs donated by families stricken with the ailment. The resulting stem cells can then be used to understand a disease and to look for treatments.

Scientists routinely share stem cell material, and researchers feared that the rule crafted by the Romney administration could place them in legal peril if they accepted stem cell lines from scientists outside the state that were derived for scientific use.

While the scientific community backed the reversal of the research restriction, some religious and antiabortion groups registered their opposition to all stem cell research at recent public hearings.

Posted by Karen Weintraub at 02:34 PM
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