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Give scientists the tools they need

The Boston Globe

The Massachusetts Legislature has voted overwhelmingly on bills that promote embryonic stem cell research, sometimes called regenerative or cellular medicine.

This is a moment when the Legislature, through timely and thoughtful action, is helping make the Commonwealth the global center of the life sciences revolution. Massachusetts must lead the way because the extraordinary intellectual resources of our state bring with them a moral responsibility to help alleviate human suffering.

Stem cell research has the potential to give scientists the tools to replace injured heart tissue, to create dopamine producing neurons for Parkinson’s patients, pancreatic beta cells for diabetics, provide treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injuries, and many others.

More than 100 million Americans and millions more worldwide suffer from diseases that may be susceptible to future treatments developed through stem cell research.

In addition, creating a favorable environment for stem cell research capitalizes on one of our region’s greatest strengths.

There is no circle with a 4-mile radius anywhere in the world that has as much biomedical talent as the one surrounding our state’s capitol on Beacon Hill. No other area can match the concentration of academic and medical research talent in the life sciences that exists in Cambridge and Boston.

Our universities and hospitals create new high-paying jobs in large numbers. They are magnets for the world’s most talented and ambitious young people who stay here in large numbers after concluding their studies. They remain because the scientific work is intense and satisfying and the Boston area is a vibrant and exciting place to be.

That our great universities and hospitals are not going to move or be bought out by an out-of-state acquirer is not a reason for them to be taken for granted by policy makers.

Indeed, their permanence should make them an object of special policy concern. Without an appropriate legislative environment, there is a real risk that major initiatives, such as Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute, which can attract talented students, scientists as well as industry, would be gravely compromised.

I am aware of and respect the concerns some have about stem cell research. That is why Harvard University and other institutions have adopted elaborate safeguards to ensure that research is conducted ethically and to protect research participants, and we will continue to do so.

We not only will follow the federal government’s stringent policies governing all research that relies on human subjects and that are imposed on all institutions and scientists that receive federal funding, but we have established another layer of review for stem cell research recognizing the ethical concerns that surround this research.

In addition, the National Academy of Sciences is completing an exhaustive study of this new field and is expected to release its new guidelines for the conduct of stem cell research within the next month or so. We will follow the national standards set by the academy.

Recent history suggests that human embryonic stem cell research, once it becomes more prevalent, will become almost universally accepted.

Only 50 years ago a Harvard scientist, Joseph Murray, performed the first kidney transplant. Many decried this scientific feat as sacrilegious. DNA research became the basis for today’s biotech industry, yet 30 years ago, there were efforts by some local governments, including Cambridge, to ban it.

In 1978, the first in-vitro baby, Louise Brown, was born, causing an outcry from those who believed that science was tampering with nature.

Since then, countless families have known the joy of having children through in-vitro technology.

Today, although human embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998, an ambiguously drafted state law that dates from 1973 had cast a cloud on its legality in Massachusetts, and other states, notably California, have begun to legislate to ensure that stem cell research is able to proceed without encumbrance.

That is why the Legislature’s approval is good news.

The Massachusetts genius for science is real. We are at a moment when we can ensure our place in the coming renaissance in life sciences and in the understanding of disease and human nature that is going to take place in our lifetime.

As the president of a large research institution and as an economist, I feel confident in my support of stem cell research as it pertains to the well-being of our region and of our families. As someone who has fought cancer and survived, I also know the value of hope.

Embryonic stem cell research gives hope to those who are waiting for cures. Let’s make sure that it happens in Massachusetts.