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Way cleared for stem cell research bill

House, Senate leaders agree on oversight

House and Senate leaders announced yesterday that they have reached an agreement on a bill promoting embryonic stem cell research in Massachusetts, setting the stage for the measure to become law in the coming weeks.

The lawmakers said they ironed out a final wrinkle by designating the Department of Public Health as the agency that will regulate stem cell research, but establishing checks on the agency's power.

The Senate is expected to take up the compromise today, and the House is likely to follow suit next week, once it concludes debate on the fiscal 2006 state budget. There is strong support for embryonic stem cell research, and the creation of human embryos for research, in both chambers.

Governor Mitt Romney, who supports the use of embryos left over from in vitro fertilization but not the creation of human embryos for research, often called therapeutic cloning, has suggested he will veto the bill, which allows both. But last month, both the House and Senate approved stem cell measures that allow the creation of embryos by veto-proof margins. The Senate approved its version 35-2, and the vote in the House was 117-37.

Scientists in Massachusetts are already doing embryonic stem cell research, but its legality is fuzzy under current state law. The measure approved yesterday is designed to clarify that the research is allowed and to place it in a regulatory framework that will ease ethical concerns. Though supporters haven't emphasized the point lately, it is also supposed to keep embryonic stem cell research -- and jobs -- in the Bay State.

Although the bill allows scientists to produce embryos for research, it bans reproductive human cloning, the creation of babies.

George Q. Daley, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital in Boston who is conducting embryonic stem cell research, reacted with cautious optimism to yesterday's agreement.

''We'll see how it actually plays out in practice. But I'm hopeful that the bill endorses the research and has created an oversight structure that doesn't end up preventing the work from being done," Daley said.

If the bill becomes law, Massachusetts would follow California and New Jersey as the only states to explicitly endorse embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. California and New Jersey have pledged public money for embryonic stem cell research, and Massachusetts may end up approving its own funding, according to Senate President Robert E. Travaglini, who has been driving the issue on Beacon Hill.

The major issue facing the House and Senate negotiators was what role the Department of Public Health should play in regulating the research. The Senate, fearing that Romney or future governors might use the health department to quash therapeutic cloning, wanted to limit the agency's power. The more socially conservative House wanted it to have a stronger role.

Under the compromise bill, scientists engaged in any kind of embryonic stem cell research would have to register with the Department of Public Health, which would issue regulations governing the work. But the health department would have to report regularly to the Legislature on the creation of the regulations, which the Senate insisted upon out of concern the agency may try to impose overly strict limitations on researchers, such as monthly inspections of their labs. A 15-member board of medical ethicists and scientists would keep tabs on the agency. The governor, the Senate president, and the House speaker each would appoint five members to the oversight panel.

Representative Daniel E. Bosley, the North Adams Democrat who was the lead negotiator for the House, also noted that the bill ''explicitly states that you can't trump statute by regulation, that you can't do anything that is contrary to what we're enabling in this bill."

''I have every confidence that DPH is going to allow this to go forward and be a partner in allowing this to work," Bosley said.

Senator Bruce E. Tarr, the Gloucester Republican who led Senate negotiators, said the health department has ''a limited but meaningful role" in the compromise bill.

''The checks are in place to make sure DPH doesn't overstep its bounds or take action to interfere or prohibit" the research, Tarr said. ''The biggest concern we all had was not making the role of the DPH subject to liberal interpretation. We wanted to make sure it was within a set of parameters."

Stem cells, which are found in embryos, umbilical cords, and some adult tissues, have the potential to develop into a range of muscles, organs, nerves, and other types of tissue in the body. But many researchers are interested in stem cells from human embryos, because they are the most versatile. Among other things, those cells may be able to repair and regenerate damaged tissue and organs, such as spinal cords severed in accidents.

The Catholic Church and antiabortion groups oppose all embryonic stem cell research, arguing that an embryo is a human being, whether it is left over from in vitro fertilization or produced by therapeutic cloning. They tout adult stem cells as a more promising, and ethical, avenue of research.

Scott Greenberger can be reached at greenberger@globe.com.

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