Kansas stem cell research bill: Meddling or progressive?

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A new bill under debate in the Kansas legislature requires KU Medical Center to create a new adult stem cell research facility, but many have concerns about how to pay for it.

Pro-life lawmakers who pushed for the bill say it will help unleash stem cell's life-saving potential. But critics say KU Med Center didn't even ask for this, and lawmakers aren't giving them a way to pay for it.

The bill has been approved in both the house and senate so it only awaits Governor Brownback's signature, and he has indicated he supports it. The bill creates the "Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center" focusing on adult stem cell research.

KU Med Center didn't want to comment for this story, but in the past, it has expressed concerns about establishing this new center, because the startup costs alone are more than a million dollars, and KU says it doesn't have that money. KU Med Center says its researchers are already studying adult stem cells -- and they agree it is important work. But State Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, (R-Shawnee) says KU was doing the research on a very limited level. She wants to expand it because she's excited about cures and therapies that could come from this work.

"To me it was like, why isn't this happening? Why aren't we getting research to people who need it?" said Pilcher-Cook.

Pilcher-Cook's bill requires KU Medical Center to establish the "Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center" and focus on studying only adult stem cells. It prohibits use of embryonic stem cells because that involves destroying an embryo.

"Not only will it help patients but also spur economic development in our state and region," said Pilcher-Cook.

But critics like State Representative Barbara Bollier, (R-Mission Hills, Kan.) don't understand how KU is supposed to pay for this, especially since lawmakers already plan to cut KU's budget by $10 million this year.

"The bigger concern to me is this was a mandate that was unfunded, that was huge," said Bollier.

But she's also worried about the idea of government telling a research facility what they should study. She calls it unprecedented.

"Why are we meddling in their business? I just don't follow this," said Bollier, "Not only is a concern for me as a physician and a scientist , but KU Med, they know what they're doing. We have never had a relationship with them as a legislature telling them what to research or telling them what they need to be doing."

Bollier points out that the language of the bill is that KU Medical Center "shall" establish this research center. She says lawyers she talked to would have preferred the word "may" because it offers them more flexibility in case funding does not come through. And there's legal concerns about what happens if KU Medical Center for some reason does not or can not establish the center? But Pilcher-Cook disagrees with the idea that this is a mandate.

"I don't think we are telling KU Med Center what to do," she said, "I think we went to them with great ideas, had some physicians who were already vested in it and said 'wow that's great, let's do this together.'"

Supporters of the bill say KU could solicit grants, gifts and contributions to pay for the center. Critics say that kind of thing takes a long time to put into place. Pilcher-Cook adds that the budget isn't set in stone yet, she thinks KU Med could still get the funding for the center as lawmakers finalize the budget next month.

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