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Michigan university, lawmakers at impasse over hESCs
As we eagerly await the arrival of summer here at ddn headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio, we have put our feature series on drug repurposing to bed, and are about to embark on a multi-part series on trends in stem cell research. Our landmark series last summer proved very popular, and the topic is just as hot this year as it was in 2011. News about discoveries in this arena, as well as continued legal and regulatory scrutiny over the use of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), still dominates many headlines.
Case in point: In March, Michigan's House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education said it may withhold $7 million of performance funding from the 2012/2013 state budget for the University of Michigan (U-M) and Michigan State University if U-M does not disclose the number of hESCs the school is using in its research. The university was required to report this information to the Department of Public Health by Dec. 1 under new language inserted into last year's state budget.
Specifically, the university was required to submit data showing the number of human embryos and hESC lines received in the current fiscal year; the number of embryos used for research and the number of embryos held in storage; the number of stem-cell lines created; and the number of research projects currently underway.
But U-M chose to submit the requested information in a different form. Vice President for Government Relations Cynthia H. Wilbanks sent officials a cover letter summarizing the school's stem cell research efforts and attached a folder containing a large number of press releases, news stories and journal articles that "detailed the depth and breadth and scope of the stem cell research that is going on at the university," says Rick Fitzgerald, a spokesman from the university's office of public affairs.
"Our position is that it is just not possible to boil this very important work into a series of data points," Fitzgerald tells ddn. "We reiterated that we feel strongly that the information we provided offered the kind of rich context for the research we're doing, which we believe is really important to understanding this work."
Lawmakers were miffed at the university's submission. Last month, at an annual meeting of the subcommittee and the leaders of Michigan's 15 state universities, Rep. Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, accused U-M of "thumbing its nose at the legislature."
Cotter, who did not respond to my interview request, said the data required of U-M could have been provided on one sheet of paper.
U-M President Mary Sue Coleman responded that she thought the university responded appropriately to the reporting requirements, and she and the legislators "would have to disagree" on the issue.
Michigan's public universities are already facing a severe budget crisis. Currently, the state budget allots $1.4 billion to higher education, a 3 percent increase over the 2011-2012 budget.
U-M, one of the nation's top-ranked public schools, has long been a leader in stem cell research using hESCs, adult stem cells and induced pluripotent (iPS) cells. Notably, U-M researchers were the first to identify stem cells in solid tumors, finding them in breast cancer in 2003. The school bolstered its hESC program in 2008 after Michigan voters approved Proposal 2, a state constitutional amendment that eased restrictions on the types of hESC research allowed in Michigan.
Legislators have until the end of the month to make their final budget decisions.
"Researchers are very concerned about the political climate in Michigan," says Fitzgerald. "There is a lot of work to be done with regard to higher education appropriations for the coming year, and a lot of differences to be resolved in our state budget. This is a complicated issue for our state, and one we hope will be resolved by the time the legislature adopts a budget."
But Jim Eliason, executive director of the Great Lakes Stem Cell Innovation Center and an outspoken critic of this current situation, isn't quite as diplomatic.
"They have put something into the higher education budget requiring some kind of nonsensical attempt at transparency—yet they are about as transparent as …" he trails off.
The impasse between lawmakers and universities "does harm to the entire biotech community in Michigan," Eliason adds. "We have no trouble finding quality staff. A lot of people want to work here because of the quality of our universities. But all of this is a strong indicator that our politicians and state are anti-science. If you were a biotech company, would you really want to move to a state that is anti-science? This is like pouring cold water on recruiting efforts or start-up companies."
As we went to press, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder came out in favor of the university, arguing that the reporting requirements included in last year's state budget are "unenforceable and unconstitutional if sought to be enforced." The governor's legal counsel wrote a letter to lawmakers stating as much.
"It's encouraging that the governor is being consistent," Fitzgerald says. "We continue to work with the legislators in the appropriations process. We have a lot of time to address this and other issues."
Here's hoping that this situation can be resolved in a manner that is in the best interests of the universities and Michigan taxpayers.