Michigan Ballot Takes On Stem Cell Research

There is a new proposal on the ballot in Michigan that would expand the use of human embryos in medical research, but would limit the manner in which they could be acquired. The proposal appears to be popular in public opinion polls.

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JOE PALCA, host:

Up next, embryonic stem cell research and the battle at the polls. The election is only a few days away and while most of us of course are focused on the race for President, voters in Michigan will have an added decision to make. On the ballot there's something called Proposal 2.

General speaking, a yes vote on Proposal 2 would broaden the ability of scientists in Michigan to work with human embryonic stem cells. Those in opposition to the proposal say the current limits on the research should remain in place. Michigan is the only state this election to have a stem cell research initiative on the ballot, but that hasn't kept the issue out of the presidential race.

Both senators McCain and Obama have run ads about the research, ads that some say are a little misleading. Joining me now to talk more about embryonic-stem-cell research in the upcoming election are my two guests.

First, in the studio here we have Julie Rovner, she's my colleague on the Science desk at NPR. She's the health correspondent and the author of a new book "Health Care Policy and Politics A to Z."

JULIE ROVNER: Hi, Joe.

PALCA: Hi, Julie. Also with us is Sean Morrison, he's director of the University of Michigan Center for Stem Cell Biology and an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institution. He joins us by phone from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Thanks for talking with us today, Sean.

Dr. SEAN MORRISON (Director, Center for Stem Cell Biology, University of Michigan; Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute): Hey, Joe.

PALCA: So we only have a minute or so before we have to go to a break, Sean, but let's start with you, and tell us just a little bit about what Proposal 2 is supposed to do?

Dr. MORRISON: Proposal 2 would loosen Michigan's restriction on embryonic-stem-cell research by bringing Michigan law in line with federal law. Currently in Michigan, it's illegal to destroy a human embryo for research, which may sound like a good idea to people, but the reason why almost nobody outside of Michigan has laws like that, is that doesn't make sense.

Because the embryos that would be used for this research are already being thrown away by fertility clinics. There are thousands of embryos that are routinely discarded by fertility clinics across the country, and for a variety of reasons those embryos could never be used for fertility treatment, but they could be used for stem-cell research that patients across the country consider their best hope.

PALCA: Right. And the ideas you use these discarded or embryos that are no longer needed for fertility treatments, to extract the embryonic stem cells that scientists like you want to study?

Dr. MORRISON: Yeah, exactly. So Proposal 2 would actually entrench in the Michigan constitution a number of restrictions on stem-cell research, like you couldn't buy or sell embryos, the embryos would have to have been created for fertility treatment.

But either surplus to the clinical need or unsuitable for clinical use, such that the embryos would otherwise be discarded, if not donated with informed consent for research.

PALCA: I got it. OK. Well, as I said, we have to take a short break, but when we come back, we'll talk about the situation in Michigan and the situation with the rest of the country with regard to stem-cell research. Please stay with us. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

PALCA: From NPR News this is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Joe Palca. We're talking this hour about embryonic-stem-cell research and the elections. My guests are Julie Rovner, she's a health correspondent for National Public Radio, and Sean Morrison, he's a stem-cell researcher at the University of Michigan.

And Sean Morrison was just explaining that Proposition 2 would relax some of the restrictions currently on the books in Michigan about destroying an embryo, because that's what you have to do to obtain embryonic stem cells, and of course many embryos - human embryos are destroyed anyway in fertility clinics when the couples who've created them for fertility purposes don't want them anymore.

So, that's the nut of the decision, but - before I start with - before we get on the national scene, I want to stay with you, Sean Morrison, for one second and say, you can still do embryonic-stem-cell research in Michigan, right?

Dr. MORRISON: That's right. We can import lines that are created in other parts of the country or other parts of the world, and we do research on those lines. But the difficulty is that for many of the lines that scientists would like to be able to use to study various diseases right now, many of the lines don't exist. And often times even when lines do exist in another part of the world, and the people that made the lines are willing to share them, it's still often impossible to get the lines, because this research is obviously and appropriately very highly regulated.

There's probably no form of medical research that is as highly regulated, and to do any kind of embryonic-stem-cell research, the providence of the lines has to be proven that the lines were ethically conducted. And unless you can affirmatively prove that lines created in another part of the world were obtained with appropriate informed consent and ethically derived, then nobody in Michigan or in other U.S. universities wouldn't be able to study them. And that process is often very onerous to provide the paperwork, you know, the documentation from the laboratories that derive the lines in, many labs just aren't in a position to be able to share that level of paperwork with labs in other places.

PALCA: All right. I think, I may have misspoken at the top of the hour. This is a proposal to change the law, not a change in the law yet. Any sense of where the polls are saying whether this will pass or not?

Dr. MORRISON: Well, all the polls have the yes side ahead, but different - some polls put it extraordinarily close, some polls had the yes side leading by a little bit more. I think, all we know at this stage is that it will be close on Tuesday, and it could go either way.

PALCA: OK. Now let's turn to the national story and where - and Julie Rovner, where this comes in to a national issue is even if Michigan changes its law, you still wouldn't be able to get federal funds to make the embryonic-stem-cell lines.

But an interesting thing is I don't believe either presidential candidate is suggesting that federal funds be used to derive embryonic stem cells which - and this is a fine point - they're both suggesting it might be OK to use federal funds to do research on cells that somebody else derived.

ROVNER: That's right, and you know, it's interesting given the fact that both candidates have ostensibly the same position on embryonic-stem-cell research. We've certainly seen a lot of debate on this issue since - really since the campaign - the general election campaign started in earnest around Labor Day. We've seen dueling ads if you will, we have - here's one ad that Senator McCain was running during the fall.

(Soundbite of Senator McCain's campaign ad)

Unidentified Woman: John McCain will lead his Congressional allies to improve America's health. Stem cell research, to unlock the mystery of cancer, diabetes, heart disease. Stem cell research, to help free families from the fear and devastation of illness. Stem cell research, to help doctors repair spinal cord damage, knee injuries, serious burns. Stem cell research, to help stroke...

PALCA: So what's wrong with that? Stem cell research, stem cell research, stem cell research?

ROVNER: Well, now, John McCain it should be said is - has a nearly 100 percent pro-life voting record. He's been anti-abortion down the line, but embryonic-stem-cell research is the one place where he has broken with the anti-abortion community. He has voted in favor of a bill to relax President Bush's restrictions on funding of federal-embryonic-stem-cell research. However, the Republican platform is against embryonic-stem-cell research, so this ad which goes on about stem cell research, stem cell research, stem cell research didn't say what kind of stem cell research.

So it could be adult-stem-cell research, which is not controversial, or stem-cell research using umbilical cord blood, also not controversial, it was very carefully tailored to not say embryonic-stem-cell research for which it was rather roundly criticized. Again, on Senator McCain's website there was a statement that talked about stem-cell research needs to go forward in an ethical manner. It was written in such a way that it really could describe what President Bush's position has been.

PALCA: So...

ROVNER: It took me until last week to pry out of Senator McCain's aides the fact that yes, if he was elected, he would actually sign the bill that he voted for as senator.

PALCA: So, this is one these things - these topics that's extremely hard to parse, and I should say if you want to join us in this conversation, please give us a call, the number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. One question I'll be interested - what our callers have to say is whether this is an issue for them in the election.

I mean, does it make that much of a difference? But I guess we have also heard of Mr. Obama has tried to have it a little bit both ways in this issue too.

ROVNER: Yes. Senator Obama started running his own radio ad after Senator McCain was running the stem-cell ad. And I think we have a piece of that ad.

(Soundbite of Senator Obama's campaign ad)

Unidentified Woman: Stem cell research could unlock cures for diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer's too. But John McCain has stood in the way. He's opposed stem-cell research. Picked a running mate who's against it, and he's earning on a platform even more extreme than George Bush's on this vital research.

PALCA: So, conveniently neglecting to mention that Senator McCain voted in favor of embryonic-stem-cell research when he was in the - as a senator where he is now.

ROVNER: Yes, side-by-side with Senator Obama. They voted exactly the same way on that embryonic stem-cell research. Now, of course the last two pieces of the ad were true about Senator Palin and about the Republican.

I mean, Governor Palin and the Republican platform, but the first part about Senator McCain's standing in the way of embryonic - of stem-cell research is demonstrably false, and Senator Obama has been roundly criticized by various fact-checking organizations for running that ad.

PALCA: OK. Well, let's take a call now and go to Nanette(ph) in Royal Oak, Michigan. Nanette, welcome to the program.

NANETTE (Caller): Thank you. I live in Michigan as you mentioned.

PALCA: Mm-hmm.

NANETTE: We're going to be voting on the constitutional amendment to allow stem-cell research, and first I have to say I am very much in favor of stem-cell research. I think it's very, very important. I think there's a lot of good that's going to come from it. I also have to say it bothers me tremendously that we are looking to amend our state constitution to do this. Now, am I correct that Michigan is the only state that is amending or has it will amend - has will - past, present, future tense...

PALCA: Mm-hmm.

NANETTE: The state constitution for this and all other states have passed sufficient laws?

PALCA: You know, I don't know. Sean Morrison, do you know the answer to that question?

Dr. MORRISON: Yeah. That's not correct. Other states have amended their constitutions to allow stem-cell research, most notably, including Missouri and California amended their constitutions to allow more far-reaching protection over stem-cell research than the State of Michigan. In that they have protected not only the derivation of new-stem-cell lines, but also therapeutic cloning which is illegal in Michigan, and would remain illegal in Michigan if people vote for Proposal 2.

Because the other important point here is that the reason why it's necessary in the State of Michigan to look for a constitutional amendment, rather than just to change in the law is that the same groups that are behind the no campaign on Proposal 2, opposed repeated attempts to change the law in the state legislature to bring Michigan law in line with the laws of other states. And so, the proponents to the proposal are really left with no choice, but to try to amend the state constitution.

PALCA: Nanette, I'd like to ask you a question. So, when you say you're in favor of stem-cell research, does that include embryonic-stem-cell research?

NANETTE: Yes.

PALXCA: OK. Good. And is it going to affect the way you vote for President one way or the other? I don't mean to put you on the spot there if you don't want to answer, it's OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: I know, you usually think you ask the questions. But now I'm just asking the...

NANETTE: That's OK. I've already decided who I'm going to vote for, for president, but you know, this - I've been putting my own ballot together, it's just what I do before the election, it makes life simpler on Election Day. And I got - really got hung up on this one.

PALCA: OK. Well, I hope we were able to help unhang(ph) you just a bit today.

ROVNER: Yeah. You've given me a couple of things to look at too. Thank you.

PALCA: OK. Thanks very much. Let's take another call now and go to Steve in - is it Erie, Colorado?

STEVE (Caller): Yeah.

PALCA: Steve, welcome to the program.

STEVE: Thank you. We in Colorado currently are facing an amendment that's - it's kind of titled the Persons Amendment, although it doesn't specifically mention stem-cell research, the concept behind it is that personhood occurs immediately upon fertilization of an egg. And I'm been curious to hear your comments about what that might - how that might impact, you know.

PALCA: OK. Steve, that's interesting.

STEVE: I'll take that off the air.

PALCA: Sure, Julie is nodding her head, I can see in the studio. So how is that amendment, do you think how - I guess it would make - certainly destroying a person is considered illegal in this country, so...

ROVNER: Yes. I think in my looking over what the implications of that would be, which certainly seem to make embryonic-stem-cell research illegal, because it would seem to make in vitro fertilization illegal.

PALCA: Yeah.

ROVNER: So one would - you would not be able to have the precursor to get to the embryos to get to the embryonic-stem-cell research.

PALCA: Right. I - someone was spinning out. There seem to be some interesting legal issues that you could spin out from that, like can you sue an embryo in that case, or can an embryo bring a lawsuit?

STEVE: And what about the 400,000 embryos that are currently frozen down in fertility clinics across the country? You know, if we were to consider them all people, who's going to have to implant all those embryos?

ROVNER: Well, that's - yes, there's lots of fascinating legal questions.

PALCA: And census issues I think.

ROVNER: Yes.

PALCA: All right. Well, perhaps we shouldn't go too far down that path right now, because it sounds a little bit like jumping through the looking glass. OK. Let's go next to Eric in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Eric, welcome to Science Friday.

ERIC (Caller): Hi, Ira.

PALCA: Well, I'm Joe, but that's close enough. Go ahead.

ERIC: OK. I would like to know if it wasn't for the Bush's conservative policies on this, where would we be in the science of stem-cell research. Will we be near or close to - since it was eight years, if we still were under the Clinton years, legally under it, will we be close, will we - how will we progress fast? How far will we be into the science?

PALCA: Eric, that's a great question. And Sean Morrison has been doing this research, and I expect he has - well, take a stab at the answer there. Sean?

Dr. MORRISON: It's always hard to say where we would've been, because it's always risky to try to predict into the future and know exactly on how things could be different. But anytime you impose restrictions on a form of research that is internationally agreed upon to be one of the most promising areas of medical research, and you say to certain groups of scientist that they can't pursue certain promising avenues of discovery, then you slow down the process of medical research, and you slow the process towards new cures.

And so it's really important at this stage that we have policies that reflect the reality in this science, and that allow scientists to go forward in the war against disease, using all the weapons at their disposal.

PALCA: We're talking with Sean Morrison, he's a researcher at the University of Michigan and Julie Rovner, who's my colleague on the science desk about the role of embryonic-stem-cell research, both in the national election and in the election that is going to take place in Michigan over - on a ballot proposal.

I'm Joe Palca, and this is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's take a - well, let me ask you Julie, have - or maybe Sean, both of you. This issue - this embryonic-stem-cell-research issue was pretty hot, I would say, about a year ago, and it seems to me that some of the air was taken - or wind was taken out of it sails when first the Japanese scientists and then scientists in this country showed that you could make embryonic stem cells without destroying an embryo.

And a lot of scientists are very excited - not exactly embryonic stem cells, but stem cells that do all the things that embryonic stem cells do, without destroying an embryo. Julie, do you sense that that's changed the political landscape at all?

ROVNER: I think it did for a while, the idea that you can have pluripotent stem cells that you don't necessarily have to destroy an embryo to take. And certainly John McCain has been talking about that.

And you know, there's hopes that we won't need to worry about this, you know, morally questionable avenue of research perhaps after a few years. But I think, you know, there are concerns even though these candidates, as we say, ostensibly have the same position on embryonic-stem-cell research.

There are concerns on among - certainly among Democrats about Senator McCain for instance. They say that Senator Obama has said that as soon - if he becomes President, as soon as he takes office, he will lift President Bush's executive order. That he would simply change the Federal Government's policy on restricting research, the day he becomes President, where Senator McCain might wait until Congress were to pass a bill.

That would be a different - that Senator Obama would devote perhaps more money to research on not just embryonic-stem-cell research, but the type of - other types of research you're talking about where Senator McCain has talked about cutting the budget. So that there may be other differences beyond simply, you know, the position on this specific type of research.

PALCA: So Sean Morrison, let me ask you. Is it worth the political capital that you have to spend to convince people to support embryonic-stem-cell research when it's clearly somewhat controversial, and simply go ahead and study these new cells that seemed to be able to do all the same things?

Dr. MORRISON: It's absolutely worth it. What you have to bear in mind is that the very discovery - this exciting discovery that you can reprogram adult human cells to have properties similar to embryonic stem cells.

That discovery would never have occurred without embryonic-stem-cell research. And so the people that are arguing that we should stop embryonic-stem-cell research and focus on these reprogrammed cells - who knows what additional future discoveries could come from embryonic-stem-cell research that we would foreclose if we just closed off that avenue of discovery now. So rather than representing an alternative, iPS cells simply demonstrate the power of...

PALCA: Those are the - these iPS are the new cells that (unintelligible).

Dr. MORRISON: Yeah, sorry. The reprogrammed cells demonstrate the power of research in this area. It's also important to remember that right now, the techniques that are required so far to reprogram adult, human cells involve techniques that predispose the cell's turning into cancer.

And so as of now, none of the reprogrammed lines that have been made could ever be used in patients. So what - the one thing that I think all stem-cell biologists agree on is the need for the research to go forward with all types of stem cells. So that no matter where the cures come from, we can get to them sooner, rather than later.

PALCA: So, just in closing here, Sean Morrison. I mean, you've been doing this for, well, for almost a decade now. How confident are you at this point that there really will be therapies to come out of this field?

Dr. MORRISON: I'm confident that there will be therapies that will come. I just - we just don't know exactly where they'll come from, you know. There are many different ways in which embryonic-stem-cell research and pluripotent-stem-cell research could lead to new treatments.

Either new cell therapies for diseases like Parkinson's Disease or Juvenile Diabetes. Or a better understanding of inherited human diseases from studying embryonic-stem-cell lines that carry the exact genetic defects that cause disease in patients, or from improving the drug-discovery process by screening for safer and more effective new drugs on cells that derive from embryonic stem cells in laboratory dishes, and there's just...

PALCA: Sean. Sean, I got to cut you off there because we've run out of time. That was Sean Morrison, he's the director of the University of Michigan Center for Stem Cell Biology. And I - we were also talking this segment with Julie Rovner, she's my colleague on the science desk at NPR. When we come back, we'll be talking about the planet Mercury. So stay with us. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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