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Kansas gov. signs bill to create stem cell center

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Gov. Sam Brownback signed legislation Monday aimed at making Kansas the national leader in treatments using adult stem cells and umbilical cord blood by requiring the state's medical school to establish a new research center.

The new Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center to be set up at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City is the brainchild of anti-abortion legislators and has the strong backing of other abortion opponents. The new law, taking effect in July, will prohibit the center from using its funds or facilities for research with embryonic stem cells or cells from fetal tissue.

But Brownback also was flanked by medical patients as he signed the bill creating the new research center. Among them was Mary Lou Rusco, a 64-year-old retired telecommunications worker from Wichita who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2007 and has seen her cancer remain in remission since receiving cells from two babies' umbilical cord blood in 2009.

"I really appreciate the fact that Kansas is doing this so that other people can have access to this," she said.

Stem cells are thought to have the ability to change in different types of cells, and researchers see promise in using them to treat dozens of diseases, including cancer and Parkinson's. But anti-abortion groups and legislators have long opposed using embryonic stem cells and fetal-tissue cells in research because of the destruction of embryos.

They have argued that therapies using adult stem cells and cord blood are far more promising, anyway. They also anticipated that the state's support for such research will result in medical breakthroughs that will attract funding and resources away from work with embryonic stem cell.

The bill passed both legislative chambers by wide margins. But some legislators, particularly abortion-rights supporters, questioned whether the Medical Center would have to divert resources from existing programs, including physician training, to get the new stem cell center running.

"This is an unfunded mandate," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat who voted against the legislation. "It may be a good thing for the state, and there may be a need for that, but we need to involve the universities more."

The Medical Center said Monday that the new center require an average of $1 million a year over the next decade. Lawmakers are setting it up as they're also considering proposals to cut overall state spending on higher education.

The Medical Center noted the potential costs in a statement, but spokeswoman C.J. Janovy said it commends the governor and legislators for interest in stem cell research.

"Even before the creation of the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center, KU Medical Center scientists were engaged in promising research involving adult stem cells," she said.

Supporters of the stem cell center believe the medical school can tap federal and private funds to get it started. They also believe the new center is likely to receive generous private donations, including from private companies that see commercial potential in adult stem cell therapies.

"Kansas will be the leader in this, which is fabulous on this burgeoning field," Brownback said after signing the measure. "This is really exciting -- and to see this happening here."

During Monday's signing ceremony at the Statehouse, supporters of the bill focused on how having a new research center in Kansas could help patients. They said such a center will make it easier to tie cutting-edge research into patient treatment and inform both medical personnel and the public about promising new therapies.

They acknowledged that some patients already are receiving such therapies but believe starting the new center will make them more readily available. Terry Killman, a 46-year-old retired U.S. Navy chief petty officer from Independence, survived a recent bout with leukemia after being treated with adult stem cells harvested from a brother's bone marrow.

"I wouldn't be here if it hadn't been for that treatment availability, and this bill will just make it that much better for more people to have the opportunity that I've had to live," he said.

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The bill creating the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center is SB 199.

Online:

Text and summary of the measure: http://bit.ly/11vRERe

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

University of Kansas Medical Center: http://www.kumc.edu/

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apjdhanna