Lawmakers to resume stem cell debate

ATLANTA - The General Assembly is about to re-enter the national debate over stem cell research, but without the controversy that dogged the issue in the legislature last year.

Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, introduced a bill on Tuesday to encourage "non-destructive'' stem cell research in Georgia by setting up a way for women to donate postnatal tissues and fluids.

Umbilical cord blood, placental tissue and amniotic fluids are rich in what are known as "adult'' stem cells, which can be used to look for causes, treatments and cures of various diseases.

Shafer's bill would be limited to adult stem cells and, thus, would not include stem cells taken from embryos discarded by fertility clinics, a process that destroys the embryo.

Advocates of stem cell research, from Hollywood celebrities to former first lady Nancy Reagan, say embryonic stem cells hold more potential than the adult variety.

Congress passed legislation last year to expand embryonic stem cell research, but President Bush vetoed the bill.

This year, with Democrats running Congress, the House already has passed an identical bill. The Senate is expected to follow suit.

But on Tuesday, Shafer said researchers at Wake Forest University in North Carolina recently found a way to extract adult stem cells that have all of the advantages of embryonic cells.

"These stem cells are as potent as embryonic stem cells, easier to control in the lab and do not as easily mutate into cancers,'' he said. "The cutting edge of science has shifted to prenatal amniotic stem cells.''

But Shafer's new bill, unlike the measure he introduced last year, would not ban human cloning.

The original version of the 2006 legislation drew heavy criticism from Democrats and some scientific experts who claimed that banning human cloning effectively would have criminalized ongoing embryonic stem research in Georgia.

After those protests prompted Shafer to withdraw the provision, the bill passed the Senate.

It also cleared the House during the afternoon of the last day of the session. But the House made some minor changes, and the bill didn't get back on the floor of the Senate before lawmakers adjourned for the year.

Two weeks after the bill went up in smoke, Gov. Sonny Perdue issued an executive order creating a commission to develop a network of universities, hospitals, nonprofit groups and private companies to accept donations of postnatal tissue and fluid and store the material for use in stem cell research.

"The executive order drew attention to the opportunity for Georgia to become a leader in non-destructive (stem cell) research,'' Shafer said.

But the executive order was only meant to be temporary. The commission formed by the governor expires at the end of this year.

Shafer's new bill would make the commission permanent.

Sen. David Adelman, D-Decatur, who led the fight against Shafer's bill last year, said he was pleased to see that this year's version does not include a ban on cloning.

But Adelman said he still plans to introduce legislation of his own to encourage embryonic stem cell research.

"I support using adult stem cells,'' Adelman said. "We should pursue that research, but not to the exclusion of embryonic stem cell research."