The Massachusetts House passed a bill Thursday night that would give scientists more freedom to conduct embryonic stem cell research in the state.
The House voted 117-37 for the bill, a day after the Senate approved it 35-2, giving the measure easily enough votes to override an expected veto by Gov. Mitt Romney (search).
The bill would allow scientists to create cloned embryos and extract their stem cells for research into the potential treatment and cure of diabetes, Parkinson's disease (search), spinal cord injuries and other conditions.
"I think this is a giant step for medical research," said House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi after the vote.
Shawn Feddeman, a spokeswoman for Romney, said "the governor will not sign into law a bill that permits the cloning of human embryos for research."
"This is uncharted ethical territory. The cloning of human embryos has never been done before in this country, and Governor Romney has very legitimate concerns that we not create life for the sole purpose of experimenting on it," Feddeman said.
Under current state law, scientists interested in conducting stem cell research need the approval of the local district attorney. The bill would remove that requirement, give the state Health Department some regulatory controls and ban cloning for reproductive purposes.
House Republicans led an unsuccessful bid Thursday to delay action on the legislation, with critics arguing that the bill crosses an ethical line by allowing somatic cell nuclear transfer, or "therapeutic cloning" — using human eggs specifically for research.
"We will inevitably end up with fetal farms where embryos are clinically and commercially developed into fetuses, grown for parts and potential cures," said Rep. Paul Loscocco, a Republican.
Supporters said the bill bars research on embryos after 14 days of development. They argue the more pressing moral obligation is to search for cures of diseases afflicting millions.
"I've heard these phrases over and over and over again. You're going to kill something in order to cure something. I don't happen to believe ... that's true," said Rep. Daniel Bosley, a Democrat. "In the first 14 days you are dealing with a series of cells."
Romney supports research using adult stem cells or leftover frozen embryos from fertility clinics, but opposes the creation of new embryos.
Romney's opposition to the bill put him at odds with some of the top university and research facilities in Massachusetts, including the newly formed Harvard Stem Cell Institute (search), created specifically to study the possibilities of stem cells.
Embryonic stem cells are derived from human embryos that are typically no more than a few days old. Some researchers see almost unlimited potential in those cells, which go on to develop into every kind of cell in the body, including liver cells and muscle.
Scientists hope one day to take an adult cell from someone suffering from a disease, remove the nucleus, transplant it into an egg, induce the egg to begin dividing, and use those stem cells to create a tailor-made cure and treatment for that individual.