Stem cell research law unclear

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 4, 2009

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The future of human embryonic stem cell research in Louisiana, where the Legislature has proven hostile to such work, may depend in large part on the interpretation of a state law passed last year.

That 2008 law explicitly OKs research on human embryonic stem cell lines (collections of healthy, dividing stem cells) created before Aug. 9, 2001, when then-President George W. Bush laid down restrictions on federal funding for such research.

But the law doesn’t speak specifically to lines created after that date. President Barack Obama’s recent lifting of the Bush-era restrictions raises questions about whether researchers in Louisiana could work on newer embryonic stem cell lines.

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‘‘There’s nobody I’m aware of in the state even thinking about working with new cell lines until we have some feedback,’’ said Jeff Gimble, a researcher at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Center.

Embryonic stem cells can develop into any body cell, and scientists have long hoped to harness them for creating replacement tissues to treat a variety of diseases. But research has been controversial because embryos must be destroyed to obtain them.

State law forbids destruction of embryos created by the uniting of sperm and egg at in-vitro fertilization clinics.

The Legislature struggled for several years over another possible means of creating embryonic stem cells, a process called ‘‘somatic cell nuclear transfer’’ and sometimes referred to as cloning. That is the process in which a nucleus from a woman’s egg cell would be removed and replaced by the nucleus from a donor’s skin or other non-reproductive cell to create an embryo with the identical genetic blueprint of the donor.

Last year, lawmakers decided to forbid any state or federal money for such research in Louisiana. Without government funding, research is highly unlikely.

But lawmakers appear to have muddied the issue when they included language in the law that says work on embryonic stem cell lines created before the Bush restrictions is not prohibited. The law doesn’t address what happens now that the Bush restrictions are lifted.

Gimble said researchers are unlikely to undertake research on any new human embryonic stem cell lines absent assurance that it is legal.

That could come in the form of an official opinion from Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office. Such opinions do not have the force of law but are often used by government officials for guidance.

Caldwell spokeswoman Tammi Arender said the office only issues opinions in response to requests from elected officials or government bodies, and there have been none so far. One staffer’s brief preliminary opinion, issued through Arender’s office in response to media inquiries, was that work on stem cell lines created after August 2001 would be illegal. But Arender stressed the preliminary, unofficial nature of that opinion.

She noted the National Institutes of Health office is working on federal guidelines to implement Obama’s decision, which may provide more guidance. But full resolution may not come unless there is a court case.

Dorinda Bordlee, a lawyer and opponent of human embryonic stem cell research, said recently that changing federal policy and Louisiana law would let Louisiana researchers apply for government money to work on new stem cell lines developed from embryos created out of state. Although she has lobbied hard on stem cell issues at the state Legislature, she doesn’t foresee a battle to change state law on the matter. ‘‘This is a battle that has to be fought at the federal level,’’ she said.

While Bordlee would oppose such research, Gimble favors it. Not being able to do it puts Pennington at a disadvantage in competition for research money and talented researchers, he said.

Louisiana researchers can and do work with what are known as ‘‘adult’’ stem cells, taken from blood, marrow, fat or other sources. Such cells that already have matured to create a given tissue type aren’t considered as flexible as embryonic ones, but Bordlee and others say they have been used successfully in a number of therapies.

For now, that’s good enough for Dr. Brian Butcher at Tulane University’s Gene Therapy Center. Butcher said the center has no plans to work on embryonic stem cells — and not just because of the inhospitable political climate in Louisiana. Adult stem cells are easier to obtain and grow than embryonic stem cells, he said. There is less risk of a body rejecting adult stem cell therapies and embryonic stem cells have been shown to pose a cancer risk, he said.