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Health Council repeals Romney limit on stem cell research

Public health regulators reversed yesterday a controversial limit on stem cell research imposed during the administration of Governor Mitt Romney, a restriction that caused scientists to fear criminal penalties if they conducted certain kinds of laboratory studies.

The unanimous vote by the Public Health Council - whose members were appointed by Governor Deval Patrick - should help restore the state's reputation as being hospitable to the work of stem cell scientists, members of the council said.

The repeal of the Romney-imposed rule involved a seemingly modest alteration to a single sentence in the regulation.

"It's important for us to be as competitive as possible and allow research to occur," said Public Health Council member Harold Cox, an associate dean at Boston University School of Public Health. "Changing that one sentence seems to make a world of difference to the people doing the research."

The reversal, which ended 14 months of debate on the ethics of stem cell research in the state, generated praise from Patrick, relief from the biotechnology sector, and condemnation from right-to-life organizations.

In March, Patrick called for the restrictive regulations to be reversed as part of his initiative to strengthen the state's position in the burgeoning field of stem cell research.

When the restrictions drafted by Romney's aides were adopted in August 2006, critics pointed to the rules as an example of the Republican governor's use of public health policy to strengthen his appeal to social conservatives as he embarked on a presidential bid.

The controversy dates to 2005, when the Legislature embraced a law intended to remove most obstacles to human embryonic stem cell research. But that framework made clear that legislators did not sanction the production of embryos for the express purpose of scientific exploration.

The Legislature, though, did not say anything about scientists using stem-cell lines developed in states with less restrictive laws. In New York, for example, scientists hunting for treatments for a disease can produce embryos using sperm and eggs donated by families stricken with the ailment. The resulting stem cells can then be used to understand a disease and to look for treatments.

When the Public Health Council was called upon last year to implement portions of the law, the Romney administration inserted a restriction stating that embryos could not be produced "with the sole intent of using the embryo for research." The pivotal part of that rule - and the part that troubled scientists - was the word "using."

Scientists routinely share stem cell material, and researchers feared that the rule crafted by the Romney administration could place them in legal peril if they accepted stem cell lines from outside the state that had been derived for scientific use.

Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach said in an interview yesterday that leading scientists told him that since the restriction was adopted, research centers outside Massachusetts had attempted to poach young talent, promising an environment more amenable to stem cell work.

"They were worried if this was not cleaned up, they could find a situation where the most promising research was shifting out of Massachusetts," Auerbach said.

Yesterday, the Public Health Council altered the sentence that was regarded as troublesome, striking the word using and replacing it with language that council members said reflected the original intent of the Legislature. The rule now refers to a prohibition against donating embryos specifically for research.

Advocates of expanding stem cell research said yesterday's vote may foreshadow an easing on that ban, as well.

"We would hope now there may be an appetite to review that whole concept of the prohibition on donation," said Kevin Casey, director of governmental relations for Harvard.

In a statement, Patrick hailed the vote, saying that "our leadership in life sciences, as well as our opportunity to grow this economy, depends on eliminating unnecessary barriers like these."

During recent public hearings, the change in the stem cell rule drew robust opposition from some religious groups, as well as Massachusetts Citizens for Life and the Massachusetts Family Institute, organizations that oppose abortion and the use of embryos in stem cell research.

Embryonic stem cells have the capacity to become any cell in the body, and scientists predict that the research could lead to insights into diseases and, potentially, to treatments. But the work has provoked opposition from antiabortion groups because current methods of obtaining cells require destroying embryos.

"The unfortunate action of the state Public Health Council to amend the Romney regulations by removing the restriction on embryonic stem cell research casts a vote for unethical scientific research and raises false hope of ill people desperately seeking cures by suggesting to them that their future treatment lies in embryonic stem cell research," said Dr. Mildred F. Jefferson, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life.

Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.

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