Meri Firpo, a former featured Scientist on the Spot, has been accused by a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives of breaking the law. According to Representative Dan Severson (R-Sauk Rapids) a 1973 state statue on human research appears to make the embryonic research that Dr. Fripo conducts illegal. The accusations came as state lawmakers debated in committee funding for embryonic stem cell research.
According to a recent Star Tribune article, “At the Stem Cell Institute, much of Firpo's work takes place within a locked, windowless 250-square-foot lab where every pen, every vial -- even the lab's share of ventilation -- must be carefully documented to ensure that it isn't paid for with federal dollars. The university is scrupulous about not using any of its state funding as well. With a budget of $250,000 scrounged from private donations, Firpo and others hunt for the information that will eventually, they believe, lead to cures for diabetes and other illnesses.”
Many other states, like Wisconsin, support stem cell research with state funding. Minnesota does not. Governor Tim Pawlenty campaigned for reelection as a supporter of stem cell research, but since the election has slid on the issue, and now says he would only support public funding if it did not include destroying embryos. The alternatives he supports, such as research that uses stem cells which are found in adults and in umbilical cords is not generally considered controversial.
As for the stem cells that come from embryos, the embryo is always destroyed in the process of harvesting the stem cells – a method of harvesting stem cells without destroying the embryo has not been developed. Dr. Firpo stated in her Scientist on the Spot feature, “The embryos we used to make human embryonic stem cell lines were from donors undergoing fertility treatments in a clinic. There were two types of embryos donated to my research program. The first (and most common) were those embryos that were discarded because they were determined to be too poor quality to make a woman pregnant. The second source was embryos that were frozen for the donor's use that were good quality, but were not needed for the donor's fertility treatment. The donors choose whether to keep the embryos, donate them or discard them. If they are discarded, they can choose to destroy them or to donate them for research.”
The University of Minnesota’s own Center for Bioethics has some great questions about embryonic stem cells and their use in medical research:
• When does a human embryo become a person?
• Should we use research methods that destroy human embryos to search for new therapies that could help people in the future?
• How far are we as a society willing to go to improve our health and lives?
• Where should the embryos for stem cell research come from?
• Will stem cell research lead to future genetic manipulation of cells? Will we cease to be human if that happens?
• What are we willing to spend on medical research and who should decide what is morally appropriate?
As for the accusations that Firpo’s research is illegal, Firpo states that she has been assured by the University that her research is legal, and that the statue Representative Severson referred to does not apply in this case.