ANNAPOLIS – A measure to devote millions in state funds to stem cell research passed its second committee Thursday and is close to getting the votes it needs to pass the Senate, a key lawmaker said.
The House Health and Government Operations Committee voted Thursday 15-9 in favor of the Stem Cell Research Act, which allocates $23 million in state funds over five years for research on both adult and embryonic stem cells.
A different version of the bill passed the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
Proponents say the controversial measure would boost Maryland’s precarious biotechnology industry and aid scientists in developing cures for dozens of diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and juvenile diabetes.
But the state’s Department of Budget and Management said it would take money away from important state programs such as Medicare. Other opponents claim research on embryonic stem cells is unethical.
Embryonic stem cells differ from adult stem cells because they are derived from fertilized human embryos, which some key lawmakers say are living human beings. Adult cells come from human tissue.
Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, and Delegate Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, introduced the measure, originally calling for the state to spend $25 million to be awarded to researchers by a new state commission based on the recommendations of an expert panel.
Their measure has undergone several changes since then.
Rosenberg added a prohibition on the creation of embryonic cells for research purposes.
The House Health committee voted to earmark $2 million of the $25 million for prostate cancer treatment and screenings. The money comes from a fixed Cigarette Restitution Fund so the $2 million could not be added to the original $25 million, said chairman John Adams Hurson, D-Montgomery.
The committee also voted to ban Maryland residents from buying unfertilized eggs and selling them for research. It also voted to ensure the state has co-ownership of financial windfalls from research breakthroughs, to require members of the grant panel to disclose their relevant relationships, to keep their meetings open to the public and to require the governor to adhere to their recommendations.
Hurson requested some of the changes to avoid problems like those in California, where conflicts of interest have spurred lawsuits over how to divvy up $3 billion in state funds for stem cell research.
The amendments are necessary, Hurson said, because the federal government banned applying federal funds to embryonic research in 2001 — obligating states that wish to fund it to figure out how to legally do it themselves.
Opponents on the committee favored spending state money on adult cell research only, because, they said, adult cells have been proven to cure diseases, while embryonic cells have not. They also recommended spending the money on other health matters.
But embryonic stem cells are potentially much more useful in fighting diseases and are more plentiful than adult cells, Delegate Marilyn Goldwater countered.
Research on them “helps numerous people,” she said. “I think we have to let the medical community and scientific community look at this. I don’t think the Legislature should tie the hands of scientists.”
And Maryland needs to invest in stem cell research to “be a leader in this field (biotechnology), not a follower,” said Delegate Eric Bromwell, D-Baltimore County.
The state’s biotechnology industry, fifth in the nation in terms of jobs, could be crippled if top scientists leave for states with research funding, scientists said at earlier hearings.
Because Rosenberg’s bill was jointly assigned to the Appropriations Committee, it must pass that committee before the House may vote on it.
Hollinger’s bill — which still calls for a $25 million grant — must clear the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee before a Senate vote.
The time of those committees’ votes is unknown.
The measure could be held up in the Senate, where opponents, including Sen. Andrew Harris, R-Baltimore County, could filibuster against it.
But Hollinger said she is close to securing the 29 votes she needs to end the filibuster.
“I’m very hopeful,” she said.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich has not taken a position on the measure. Spokesman Henry Fawell noted Ehrlich has supported the biotechnology field in the past, but said the governor would reserve judgment until he is obligated to.
Several states, including New Jersey and Wisconsin, are also considering joining California in allocating state funds to stem cell research. The Virginia General Assembly already voted down such a measure this year.