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Maryland to fund stem cell research

Maryland will become one of four states that have agreed to fund stem cell research, following final passage Wednesday of legislation in the House of Delegates and a pledge from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to sign it, despite misgivings by most lawmakers in his party.
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Maryland will become one of four states that have agreed to fund stem cell research, following final passage yesterday of legislation in the House of Delegates and a pledge from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to sign it, despite misgivings by most lawmakers in his party.

With Ehrlich's signature, the state will offer as much as $15 million in grants in the coming year to university and private-sector researchers seeking treatments for debilitating conditions through work on stem cells, including those derived from human embryos.

In the wake of a 2001 executive order by President Bush limiting federal support for embryonic research, debate over funding the controversial science has been pushed down to statehouses across the country.

"We're going to sign it," Ehrlich said of the bill that passed the House 90 to 48 and had already won approval in the Senate. "It furthers our reputation nationally and internationally. . . . It helps us retain our best and brightest here."

Much of the money, to be awarded by a state commission, is expected to flow to researchers at Johns Hopkins University and University of Maryland campuses, as well as to a few companies in Maryland's biotech sector conducting research on adult stem cells. The adult cells, while not considered as promising for research, are less controversial because collecting them does not require the destruction of an embryo.

Julie Coons, president of the Tech Council of Maryland, said she also sees potential for the legislation to foster start-up companies, as long as future governors and lawmakers continue to provide financial support.

‘Sending a message’
"We have made a major step forward in helping the industry but also in sending a message . . . that we are a player in this field," Coons said.

In the wake of Bush's order, New Jersey was the first state to appropriate money for embryonic stem cell research. Californians then voted to spend $3 billion on the research over 10 years, though that money has been held up by lawsuits. And grant money will soon be available in Connecticut, where lawmakers created a research fund last year.

The issue has been one of the most emotional and most divisive taken up by the Maryland General Assembly this year, with opponents arguing that work on embryonic cells is tantamount to abortion. Supporters have spoken of the promise the research holds for such conditions as Parkinson's disease and juvenile diabetes.

Several advocates for the bill, some of them with those conditions, unfurled a banner in the House gallery that read, "Thank you for hope!" after the vote.

A tearful celebration ensued on the State House steps, where advocates were joined by sponsors of the legislation.

"We've done the right thing for our state, not just for people here today but for others who are suffering," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), author of a more expansive bill passed by the House earlier that mandated $25 million a year for embryonic stem cell research.

The bill that passed yesterday, which originated in the Senate, incorporated several compromises, including leaving the level of funding to future governors.

‘A matter of conscience’
Opponents in the House offered less impassioned arguments yesterday than in previous debate, recognizing they had no realistic chance of stopping the bill.

House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert) stressed that he and other opponents support adult stem cell research, which is closer to yielding therapies. It is work on embryonic cells that they oppose.

"Please don't misinterpret these votes," O'Donnell said. "They're a matter of conscience."

Only four of the chamber's 43 Republicans voted for the bill. In the Senate, only one of the 13 GOP members supported it.

Ehrlich, in an interview, said he was comfortable signing the bill despite the lack of support from his caucus, given his track record supporting stem cell research reaching back to his days in Congress.

"I have my views, and those views are part of my record, part of my belief system," he said.

Similar legislation died on the final day of the legislative session last year under the threat of a filibuster on the Senate floor. Ehrlich remained largely silent on the issue then.

Search for middle ground
At the outset of this session, the governor sought to craft a middle ground. He included $20 million in his budget proposal for stem cell research but insisted grants be available for work on adult stem cells, if scientists found it promising.

Lawmakers sponsoring the bill initially balked, arguing that federal funding is plentiful for work on adult stem cells. But the bill was heavily amended to make it palatable to the more socially conservative Senate.

"It's evolved into . . . what we envisioned," Ehrlich said.

His posture on the bill remained unclear until yesterday because he had said repeatedly that he did not believe legislation was necessary to fund the science. Ehrlich suggested that his budget proposal was sufficient, but lawmakers insisted on establishing guidelines in the law for awarding the grants.