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Legislating science

The University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City is renowned as both a teaching and a research institution. Part of its mission is "to discover new knowledge in the quest for life saving cures."

That quest to save lives and cure disease has placed KU Med at the forefront of many initiatives, including stem cell research. Stem cells are believed to be critical to advancing medical efforts to fight cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, respiratory ailments and neurological disorders, among others.

Seemingly unfamiliar with KU Med's long-standing commitment to such research, the Kansas Legislature took it upon itself this year to give the facility guidance. Lawmakers approved Senate Bill 199, which would require KU Med to create the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center.

As the medical center already was conducting research in this area, had identified it as a high priority, and also had not requested Topeka to fund such a center, we couldn't help but wonder what legislators were up to.

Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee and one of the bill's co-sponsors, said: "Not only will it help patients but also spur economic development in our state and region."

Pilcher-Cook acknowledged KU Med was pursuing research on adult stem cells, but it was too limited.

It strikes us that the opposite is true. Research physicians there apparently use stem cells derived from adult tissues as well as "the earliest cellular forms." Its attempts to find science-based answers to solve critical medical issues involves a broad spectrum of exploration.

As the legislation prohibits the use of embryonic stem cells or cells taken from aborted fetal tissue, one begins to understand the lawmakers' agenda. It's not about science at all.

A blogger for Kansans For Life suggested back in February: "Pro-life legislation is broader than just abortion limitations, as the pro-life Kansas Senate demonstrated by passing two measures today: SB 199, establishing an adult stem cell clearinghouse and therapy center, and SB 142, enhancing civil litigation rights for the unborn."

To further reinforce the political nature of this bill, the law calls for the establishment of a 13-member board to direct activities. Seven of those members will be appointed by the governor or members of the Legislature. For those of you not counting at home -- that would be a majority.

The final clue is found in how lawmakers propose paying the estimated $10.7 million to establish the center and fund operations for the next decade: Federal grants, private gifts and other funds. Not a penny is included in Gov. Sam Brownback's proposed budget for 2014. In fact, KU stands to lose more than $10 million in existing funding next year as part of the governor's "budget stabilization."

The Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center is neither science nor economic development. It is nothing more than an unfunded mandate from social conservatives.

Kansans should not be surprised when scientific research grinds to a halt at the University of Kansas Medical Center -- and throughout the state. Politicians should not be directing such efforts.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net