Stem cells turning into hot topic at General Assembly

Observers at the Georgia Capitol are used to heated debates between legislative Republicans and Democrats and among advocates for various organizations on opposite sides of the political spectrum.

But dueling scientists? That was the unusual sight on display last week during hearings on an abortion-related issue that has turned more controversial than a spate of more conventional anti-abortion bills making their way through the General Assembly.

Maybe it's election-year skittishness among Democrats in a Bible Belt state. Or maybe the ice was broken by last year's passage of a Republican measure requiring a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions.

Whatever the case, the Senate barely went through the motions last week in approving a bill requiring women to get a sonogram before undergoing an abortion, so they can see an image of their unborn child and, perhaps, change their mind.

Not so in the debate over stem cell research, which has been raging for five years at the national level but is new to the Gold Dome.

The Senate Science and Technology Committee spent three hours over two days hashing out the issue, much of it taken up by medical researchers lending credibility to either a bill introduced by the panel's Republican chairman, Sen. David Shafer of Duluth, or an alternative being pushed by Democratic Sen. David Adelman of Decatur.

Despite the obvious passion on both sides, there's widespread agreement on most of the bills' provisions.

Both would create a commission to develop a procedure for volunteers to donate byproducts from childbirth - umbilical cord blood, placental tissue and amniotic fluid - to a "bank'' that would be operated by one or more of the state's universities.

Adult stem cells would be recovered from the material for research that holds great potential for treating or even curing patients suffering from degenerative diseases, and for repairing or reversing the effects of spinal cord injuries.

Where they differ is how far to go in banning human cloning. Adelman's bill would prohibit "reproductive'' cloning, using embryonic stem cells to create another human being, while allowing "therapeutic'' cloning, the use of embryonic stem cells for research.

Shafer's bill would prohibit human cloning outright.

"This bill is intended to prohibit the cloning of a human embryo for any purpose,'' he said Thursday.

Shafer said that taking such a firm stand in Georgia would avoid the controversy over embryonic stem cell research that has hampered adult stem cell research across the country.

Several medical researchers testified that more progress has been made to date with adult stem cells than with embryonic stem cells.

"There's a lot of exciting things going on with adult stem cells,'' said Dr. David Hess, chairman of the neurology department at the Medical College of Georgia. "There's a lot of potential.''

Dr. Alan Einstein, who founded a company in Alpharetta that collects and stores umbilical cords, said Georgia would have a better chance of landing federal research grants by complying with federal criteria that limit embryonic stem cell research.

But other scientists testified that adult stem cell research is only ahead of research with embryonic stem cells because adult stem cells have been available for several decades.

They said embryonic stem cells hold greater future potential because it's easier to "match'' them with diseased or damaged cells in the patient.

Others warned that Gov. Sonny Perdue's goal of making Georgia a national leader in biomedical research would be jeopardized if lawmakers pass a bill making the state more restrictive toward stem cell research than competing states.

"Hasty legislation will adversely affect the health of Georgians, the governor's economic development goals and the momentum our state is experiencing with life-science industries,'' said Russ Medford, president of the Georgia Biomedical Partnership.

Democrats on the committee argued that lawmakers don't understand enough about the ramifications of banning therapeutic cloning to take that step. They attempted to pull that section from Shafer's bill and leave in just the provisions pertaining to the bank for cord, placental and amniotic material.

But majority Republicans sided with the chairman and voted to send the bill to the Senate floor intact.

That's where the next episode will play out, as early as Wednesday.

Dave Williams is a staff writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.