Michigan university, lawmakers at impasse over hESCs

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.

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As we eagerly await the arrival of summer here at ddn headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio, wehave put our feature series on drug repurposing to bed, and are about to embarkon a multi-part series on trends in stem cell research. Our landmark serieslast summer proved very popular, and the topic is just as hot this year as itwas in 2011. News about discoveries in this arena, as well as continued legaland regulatory scrutiny over the use of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs),still dominates many headlines.
Case in point: In March, Michigan's House AppropriationsSubcommittee on Higher Education said it may withhold $7 million of performancefunding 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 theschool is using in its research. The university was required to report thisinformation to the Department of Public Health by Dec. 1 under new languageinserted into last year's state budget.
Specifically, the university was required to submit datashowing the number of human embryos and hESC lines received in the currentfiscal year; the number of embryos used for research and the number of embryosheld in storage; the number of stem-cell lines created; and the number ofresearch projects currently underway.
But U-M chose to submit the requested information in adifferent form. Vice President for Government Relations Cynthia H. Wilbanks sentofficials a cover letter summarizing the school's stem cell research effortsand attached a folder containing a large number of press releases, news storiesand journal articles that "detailed the depth and breadth and scope of the stemcell research that is going on at the university," says Rick Fitzgerald, aspokesman from the university's office of public affairs.
"Our position is that it is just not possible to boil thisvery important work into a series of data points," Fitzgerald tells ddn. "We reiterated that we feelstrongly that the information we provided offered the kind of rich context forthe research we're doing, which we believe is really important to understandingthis work."
Lawmakers were miffed at the university's submission. Lastmonth, at an annual meeting of the subcommittee and the leaders of Michigan's15 state universities, Rep. Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, accused U-M of"thumbing its nose at the legislature."
Cotter, who did not respond to myinterview request, said the data required of U-M could have been provided onone sheet of paper.
U-M President Mary Sue Coleman responded that she thoughtthe university responded appropriately to the reporting requirements, and sheand the legislators "would have to disagree" on the issue.
Michigan's public universities are already facing a severebudget crisis. Currently, the state budget allots $1.4 billion to highereducation, a 3 percent increase over the 2011-2012 budget.
U-M, one of the nation's top-ranked public schools, has longbeen a leader in stem cell research using hESCs, adult stem cells and inducedpluripotent (iPS) cells. Notably, U-M researchers were the first to identifystem cells in solid tumors, finding them in breast cancer in 2003. The schoolbolstered its hESC program in 2008 after Michigan voters approved Proposal 2, astate constitutional amendment that eased restrictions on the types of hESCresearch allowed in Michigan.
Legislators have until the end of the month to make theirfinal budget decisions.
"Researchers are very concerned about the political climatein Michigan," says Fitzgerald. "There is a lot of work to be done with regardto higher education appropriations for the coming year, and a lot ofdifferences to be resolved in our state budget. This is a complicated issue forour state, and one we hope will be resolved by the time the legislature adoptsa budget."
But Jim Eliason, executive director of the Great Lakes StemCell Innovation Center and an outspoken critic of this current situation, isn'tquite as diplomatic.
"They have put something into the higher education budgetrequiring some kind of nonsensical attempt at transparency—yet they are aboutas transparent as …" he trails off.
The impasse between lawmakers and universities "does harm tothe entire biotech community in Michigan," Eliason adds. "We have no troublefinding quality staff. A lot of people want to work here because of the qualityof our universities. But all of this is a strong indicator that our politiciansand state are anti-science. If you were a biotech company, would you reallywant to move to a state that is anti-science? This is like pouring cold wateron recruiting efforts or start-up companies."
As we went to press, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder came out infavor of the university, arguing that the reporting requirements included inlast year's state budget are "unenforceable and unconstitutional if sought tobe enforced." The governor's legal counsel wrote a letter to lawmakers statingas much.
"It's encouraging that the governor is being consistent,"Fitzgerald says. "We continue to work with the legislators in theappropriations process. We have a lot of time to address this and otherissues."
Here's hoping that this situation can be resolved in amanner that is in the best interests of the universities and Michigantaxpayers.

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