Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune

Far away from the halls of the U.S. Capitol, in laboratories crowded with petri dishes, incubators that mimic the environment of the human body and work stations where cells are nourished and manipulated, there is no debate about human embryonic stem cell research.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Stem Cell Institute, which university officials say was the first of its kind in the nation, say their work is the right thing to do. Someday such research could offer help and hope to victims of diseases now deemed incurable.

"I tell people that this is very pro-life research," said Dr. Dan Kaufman, a stem cell researcher and an assistant professor of medicine. "I have patients who die now because there aren’t better treatments for them."

The Senate this week has debated whether to loosen restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Opponents argue that such research relies on the destruction of human embryos and thus destroys a potential life. In 2001 President Bush restricted funding to research on existing embryonic stem cells cultivated into viable clusters called "lines." He has threatened to veto any move for less restrictive funding.

The restrictions are significant because federal funding provides a huge share of research dollars for colleges and universities. Without that, researchers have to seek out donations.

Scientists stress there are no guarantees; the use of embryonic stem cells to combat disease and genetic deformities is likely years away, and plenty of testing remains to be done. But loosening the restrictions "would be a real advantage for research, and would move it more quickly," said Meri Firpo, a developmental biologist and an assistant professor.

Only 10 percent of the institute’s stem cell research centers on embryonic stem cells. Stem cells can come from adults and animals as well as human embryos. But researchers say embryonic stem cells have a "plasticity" that makes them especially valuable; unlike other stem cells, they can be turned into many other kinds of cells. Cultivating more embryonic stem cells increases the chances that more diseases can be cured, researchers say.

Without the federal funds, they say, their work continues in slow motion, with many researchers left out because they can’t raise enough money.

Loosening the restrictions "could be huge," Firpo said. "It’s going to be like heart transplants or liver transplants. It will give us new therapies for diseases we can’t treat right now."

But she’s not expecting that to happen today, or soon.

"(President Bush) is going to veto it, and we’re all going to be depressed for a while, and then we’re going to start working again."