Stem cells, law and politics at Yale

NEW HAVEN — Science and politics met awkwardly Thursday afternoon at a Yale forum on stem cell research promoted by Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s campaign for U.S. Senate.

Blumenthal told scientists and research advocates that he would do whatever he could as attorney general and a potential senator to reverse a judge’s ruling that halts federally funded embryonic stem-cell research.

“It needlessly and irresponsibly injected politics into science, and cut off federal funding for one of the most promising fields of medical advancement,” Blumenthal said.

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Richard Blumenthal, Haifan Lin listen to Laura Grabel at Yale. (Mark Pazniokas)

Mindful that a tax-exempt university cannot promote a political candidate, Yale’s general counsel monitored the forum to ensure that Blumenthal focused on public policy, not his campaign.

“This is not a campaign stop,” said David Florin, the general counsel.

Still, the event hastily organized after the adverse court ruling Monday drew Blumenthal together with top researchers and advocates for a discussion open to political reporters.

It was an opportunity for Blumenthal to highlight his support of embryonic stem-cell research, which has been hobbled at times by restrictions on the use of federal funds, most prominently backed by Republicans.

But Blumenthal, who promised to file a friend-of-the-court brief supporting a Justice Department appeal of the court ruling, downplayed the issue’s political potential after the forum.

“I think it should be a very bipartisan, non-political issue,” Blumenthal said.

Ed Patru, a spokesman for Republican Linda McMahon, said McMahon was supportive of stem cell research, but he could not say if that support was unconditional.

Embryonic stem-cell researchers have chafed under federal restrictions first imposed under the terms of a budget amendment authored in 1995 by Jay Dickey, then a GOP congressman from Arkansas.

The amendment bars the use of federal funds in research in which embryos are destroyed, putting off limits even excess frozen embryos that eventually would be discarded by fertility clinics.

Blumenthal was briefed on the impact of the court decision by several experts and advocates. They included Haifan Lin, the director of Yale’s stem-cell research center, and Laura Grabel, a prominent researcher from Wesleyan University.

Lin said that Yale’s 29 labs will have to segregate work that is funded by the federal government from work that is funded by the state of Connecticut’s 10-year, $100 million stem-cell program.

“The impact is immediately felt, and the impact is going to be tremendous,” Lin said.

“It was a good week to be funded by the state of Connecticut,” said Grabel, whose lab at Wesleyan no longer gets federal funds, though she was a preparing a new federal application.

After the forum, Grabel said she has grown used to seeing her work mix with politics.

“Would I prefer to be able to do my work without dealing with this?” Grabel said. “Sure, but that’s not the reality. And the work is too important to just abandon because it is difficult.”

In March 2009, the state’s stem-cell elite became a political backdrop for U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, who then was trying to revive his flagging re-election chances.

To celebrate President Obama’s signing of an executive order that reversed some of the funding restrictions imposed by President Bush, Dodd spoke at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. The event was initiated by Dodd.

Dodd was photographed with Lin and other top academics at a lectern affixed with a placard: “Science Saving Lives. Senator Chris Dodd.”

 

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