DeGette reintroduces stem cell act, touts health and economic benefits

Rep. Diana DeGette (Kersgaard)

Colorado First District Representative Diana DeGette has re-introduced her Stem Cell Research Advancement Act. She’s announcing the move at Craig Hospital today in Colorado. An earlier version of the bi-partisan legislation passed in the House and Senate before being vetoed by President Bush. The re-introduction of the bill will test attitudes among members of the Republican-controlled Congress this year on stem cell research, which has remained a hot-button topic in strict anti-abortion circles even as stem-cell research methods progress and have already reached a point where many believe the original ethical arguments against the practice have become moot.

“With two human trials already underway for the treatment of spinal cord injuries and degenerative eye diseases, it is clear ethical embryonic stem cell research is beginning to bear fruit for the millions of Americans facing debilitating diseases and conditions,” DeGette said in a release.  “This legislation would place into statute a framework to ensure such critical research can be conducted unimpeded by political interference.”

DeGette Deputy Press Secretary Jen Clanahan told the Colorado Independent that the 2011 version of the act is very similar to the version that passed both chambers of Congress with bi-partisan support in the past.

“It will be interesting to watch how the bill is received this year,” she said.

Although anti-abortion groups oppose embryonic stem cell research because they believe it destroys unborn human life and that it threatens to expand that destruction as stem cell research grows increasingly beneficial to humans already born and suffering from disease and debilitation, embryonic stem cells now are reproduced in labs from cells derived years ago from originals. Humane research using reproduced embryonic cells is what DeGette and others refer to as “ethical embryonic stem cell research.”

The unique properties of stem cells make them extremely valuable for scientists looking in part for ways to restart human cell growth. Stem cells can divide into diverse specialized cells and can develop into nearly any of the 200 types of human cell.

DeGette’s act, co-sponsored by Pennsylvania Republican Charlie Dent, would codify the National Institutes of Health stem cell research guidelines.  It would also require the NIH to review its guidelines every three years to keep up with scientific and technical advances.  

The bill’s guidelines mandate that stem cells used for research come not directly from humans but from excess human embryos donated from in-vitro fertilization clinics.  The embryos used in the U.S. for stem cell research are embryos that would have never been implanted in a woman seeking to have children. The cells used for research would otherwise be discarded, DeGette clarified in a release. The act also prohibits the use of federal funding for human cloning. 

As DeGette has pointed out in the past and is sure to point out today at Craig, Colorado is a growing center for the thriving biotech industry in the United States. According to the Colorado BioScience Association, which represents 350 member companies, the state hosts more than 400 bioscience companies, which employ 20,000 people. That translates to 100,000 direct and indirect jobs and a rough $7 billion payroll. The association estimates that for every job created in Colorado’s bioscience industry, four direct and indirect jobs are created in the state.

Colorado was ranked third among the states last year in the Milken Institute State Technology and Science Index, which measures and predicts economic development tied to technology-based entrepreneurship. Energy technology and bio technology are big business sectors in Colorado and will be increasingly big in the future if the state continues doing what it has been doing in supporting those sectors, only more so. Last year only Massachusetts and Maryland topped Colorado, with California nipping at Colorado’s heels in the Milken rankings. That means Colorado is very good at “harnessing and nurturing the innovation assets present within its borders.”

Stem cell research will play an increasingly significant role in the bio-tech industry here but only if Colorado can keep up with states like Maryland, where the FY 2011 budget, for example, includes $8 million in tax credits for biotech firms and $10.4 million funding for stem cell research.

Craig Hospital is a non-profit rehabilitation hospital and research center that specializes in treating spinal cord traumatic brain injury. For two decades, US News and World Report has ranked Craig among the top ten rehab hospitals in the nation. Much stem cell research focuses on reanimating vital tissue lost to disease or injury.