Statehouse symposium educates legislators on stem-cell issue

BEACON HILL — Massachusetts Citizens for Life hosted a private symposium on the research, economics and bioethics surrounding stem-cell research for legislators March 16 in the Brigham Hearing Room of the Statehouse.

The symposium was held in response to the proposal by Senate President Robert E. Travaglini, D-Boston, to have the state fund $100 million in embryonic stem-cell research, said Marie Sturgis, the executive director of MCFL.

The three speakers were Dr. Micheline Mathews-Roth, a Harvard Medical School professor, Michael J. Welker, an economist and assistant professor at Fransican University in Steubenville, Ohio and Daniel S. McConchie, the director of public policy of Americans for Life.

“I don’t represent Harvard Medical School, but the information I am giving today is the same you would hear if you were sitting in my classroom,” said Mathews-Roth, who in addition to teaching at Harvard, is a practicing physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a researcher in photobiology.

Mathews-Roth said she developed the only FDA-approved treatment for erythrohepatic protoporphyria, a rare blood disease that produces a hyper-sensitivity to light.

She is directly involved in stem-cell research as a member of a joint project between Harvard and MIT to develop treatments for EPP using adult stem cells, she said.

Using slides from medical school textbooks, Roth-Mathews said she wanted to make it clear that in the scientific community there is no question that the developing unborn child is both human, a unique life with its own DNA and never considered just an organ of the mother’s body.

“Individual life begins with the zygote,” she said. “At no time is the unborn child not human. You cannot leave the biology. Life begets life is a fundamental fact of science.”

Because embryonic stem cells are culled from embryos that are five to seven days-old does not mean that they are not human lives, she said.

“We should never be creating a human being to kill it for its useful parts.”

Mathews-Roth said the media confuses the stem-cell issue when it does not distinguish between embryonic stem cells and the other two types: adult stem cells that can be taken directly from the patient and stem cells from umbilical cords.

Adult stem cells have the greatest promise because they do not have pose the same high risk of rejection as the embryonic stem cells, she said.

In animal testing, embryonic stem cells have a 25 percent rejection rate. The donor’s body rejects them the same way it would a foreign organ. When the stem cells fail to graft to the host they often form tumors, she said.

Because stem cells can be grown from umbilical cords, parents are now requesting the cords be saved and frozen for future use by their children, she said. Like adult stem cells, if these cells are from the same patient, there is no rejection risk.

Mathews-Roth said her fear is that researchers know that embryonic stem cells have little prospect of producing meaningful treatments, but they are using the hope of curing terrible diseases as a smokescreen.

It seems the real interest in the embryonic stem cells is that opportunity to unlock the secrets of life in ways the former previous bioethical regime forbade, she said.

After the Mathews-Roth presentation, Welker laid out the economic case against the Travaglini plan.

For the state to spend $100 million there must be either an economic or a moral good to be served, and the Travaglini bill does neither, he said.

Even if the plan did create jobs or spark economic growth, it would do so at the expense of the jobs and growth that would have occurred naturally in the private sector from the same $100 million, he said.

Rather, the funding is a political response to a vocal and powerful special interest, he said. “Those who stand to benefit, being few in number, have set up to manipulate information in order to lobby to get their money.”

That sentiment was echoed by Dr. Mildred F. Jefferson, chairwoman of the Citizens Select Committee on Public Health Oversight, who also attended the symposium. “Scientists alternate between being whiners and con men,” Jefferson said.

Aside from the funding in the Travaglini bill, the bill would also specifically legalize the destruction of embryos for research purposes, said McConchie.

This is a preemptive legal move that will give both scientists and their financial backers assurance that there is no risk of persecution when they pursue their research, he said.

The real unspoken question is: “Where are the researchers going to get the embryos they need?,” he said.

A Rand study estimated there are 400,000 unused embryos frozen in fertility clinics, many of which will never be used. However, because each is governed by an individual contract with the parents, it is unpractical to expect that scientists will negotiate their release with each family, he said.

What McConchie said he expects to happen is that women of the economic underclass will be exploited for their eggs to be harvested for research.

Mathews-Roth said because an unborn female has all of her eggs by the sixth month, she feared that aborted girls will be used to make up the egg deficit.

Sturgis said she was pleased with the response from the legislators and their staffs despite having to twice reschedule due to snowstorms.

A member of Gov. Mitt Romney’s staff attended most of the information session and was actively engaged in the discussions, but the staffer asked not to be named. The governor has come out against the Travaglini bill.

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