ANNAPOLIS – Brian Coble, 12, has to prick his finger several times daily and constantly wear an insulin pump just to stay alive — he would love nothing more than to be cured of his juvenile diabetes.
Passing a state bill to fund embryonic stem cell research, advocates said Wednesday, could help thousands of Marylanders like Brian, of Cape St. Clair.
That’s not true, opponents said during a hearing before two House committees Wednesday.
The bill sponsored by Delegate Samuel Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, would ban human cloning, establish a stem cell research commission and contribute $25 million annually to fund embryonic cell research.
The measure is necessary, Rosenberg said, because embryonic cells — derived from human embryos, unlike adult stem cells, which come from adult organ tissue — could be applied to fighting and curing 72 diseases.
It’s also important to keep Maryland’s biotechnology industry booming, he said. Many states, including California and Wisconsin, have approved state funding for embryonic research after President Bush prohibited spending federal funds on it.
“States are labs of democracy,” Rosenberg said. To follow only the federal plan would be “to barely engage in the extraordinary potential of embryonic research.”
Johns Hopkins University researchers John Gearhart and Douglas Kerr said scientists are on the verge of making major breakthroughs with embryonic research.
Kerr said a recent study proved embryonic cells could be used to restore dormant nerve function, literally allowing the paralyzed to walk again. Adult stem cells have not worked because — unlike embryonic cells — they are already programmed and don’t completely conform to the cells around them, he said.
“The biggest hope clearly is embryonic stem cells,” Kerr said.
Kerr has studied embryonic cells since 1998 and noted it takes years for this research to yield treatments, but that should not dissuade Maryland from funding it.
Kerr said “there has already been a brain drain” with top Maryland researchers going to California, where the research is fostered. Californians recently voted to spend $3 billion on embryonic research.
Maryland ranks fourth in the nation with 84 biotech companies. New Jersey and New York, ranking just behind Maryland, are considering stem cell laws, so to retain top scientists, Kerr said, Maryland must pass its bill.
Several delegates asked if $25 million would make a difference.
“This is a significant figure,” Gearhart said. “I don’t think Maryland will be a small-time player.”
Gearhart said public funding would help spur more private investments.
Sage Policy Group Inc. agreed. The Baltimore economic and policy consulting firm published a study predicting that five years of state contributions to embryonic research would attract numerous private investors, save the state at least $175 million in health care costs through medical breakthroughs and create at least 15,000 jobs.
Passing the bill would also save and improve lives, said Margaret Himelfarb, a lobbyist with Marylanders for the Advancement of Medical Research.
“How can Maryland in good conscience forfeit this opportunity?” Himelfarb said. “Please don’t deny some of us the right for a life that is worth living.”
But opponents argued that embryonic research has proven it cannot cure diseases.
David Prentice, a cell biologist speaking for the Family Research Council, said adult stem cells could treat as many as 56 diseases, while embryonic cells have not been proven to treat any.
“The idea that these cells will cure Alzheimer’s is a fairy tale,” said Richard Doerflinger, a lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference.
Doerflinger favors spending public funds to study adult cells and accused scientists of suppressing adult cell success to push a pro-embryonic cell agenda.
Doerflinger said cells from spare embryos in clinics are useless for medical treatment and scientists would have to create embryonic cells for research in order to treat diseases.
But Rosenberg amended his bill this week to limit research to existing embryonic cells from clinics, banning state funds for research on cells created only for research.
Maryland Right to Life opposed the bill because of provisions in it that allow the “destruction of human beings for scientific research,” according to a written statement. The organization considers embryos to be living humans.
Proponents of the bill, including Senate Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, argue that clinics discard thousands of unused embryos anyway.
Hollinger introduced the Senate’s version of Rosenberg’s bill, which was heard later Wednesday.
After explaining the bill, Hollinger argued for several minutes with committee member Andrew Harris, R-Baltimore County, about the ethics of embryonic research. Harris is expected to be part of Senate opposition should the bill advance through the committee to the Senate floor.
The House health committee heard another bill Wednesday to allocate $25 million to adult stem cell research and forbid spending state funds on embryonic research.
Delegate Tonya Shewell, R-Carroll, modeled the bill after an Ohio law because of advances already made with adult cell research, calling it “where the future is now.”
“As an investor I would want to put my money,” she said, “where I know I’m going to get my best return and that is with treatments.”