HARTFORD, CT, September 6, 2012 – Gov. Dannel Malloy has appointed James J. Hughes, Trinity’s director of institutional research and planning, to Connecticut’s Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee, which was created by the General Assembly in 2005 to oversee the state’s research grants-in-aid program.
A bioethicist, sociologist and health policy expert, Hughes joins a committee whose members consist of professors and health care professionals from Connecticut and three neighboring states, and whose chair is Jewell Mullen, commissioner of the Department of Public Health. The panel meets monthly.
Connecticut is among a small group of states that allocates tax dollars to stem cell research, which many believe could advance scientists’ knowledge of many illnesses and could hold the key to incurable diseases. However, stem cell research remains controversial because it’s prompted an ongoing ethical debate over the creation, treatment and destruction of human embryos. However, not all stem cell research involves the use of human embryos.
Although Connecticut was in the vanguard of states in allocating money for such research in 2005, it has been highly controversial at the federal level. But in August, a federal appeals court ruled that the federal government may continue to pay for research on embryonic stem cells, upholding a lower court’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit that challenged the financing of stem cell research. The latest decision affirms a lower court ruling in which the plaintiffs had claimed that the National Institutes of Health was violating a 1996 law prohibiting government spending on research that harms an embryo.
In Connecticut, “An Act Permitting Stem Cell Research and Banning the Cloning of Human Beings” was approved and signed into law by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican. Initially, the state appropriated $20 million for embryonic or human adult stem cell research. In addition, for each of the fiscal years through 2015, the law specified that an additional $10 million be disbursed to support additional research, bringing the total amount to $100 million over 10 years.
On the public health department’s Web site, it states that, “Connecticut is committed to getting these public dollars into the hands of its very talented and very passionate stem cell research community. The state is also committed to leveraging these public dollars to attract new researchers, to improve and promote for-profit and not-for-profit embryonic and human stem cell and related research, to identify additional public and private funding resources to support such research, and to recruit new scientists, researchers and businesses to the state.”
Hughes said the ethical issues that have dogged the issue in other states haven’t cropped up in Connecticut. Here, the issues are more of the regulatory and legal variety.
As of mid-2011, Connecticut had allocated nearly $60 million in support of stem cell research. Most of the money has gone to the University of Connecticut, Yale University and Wesleyan University.
In addition to the advisory committee, the legislation established a Stem Cell Research Peer Review Committee, whose members have scientific and technical expertise. To avoid potential conflicts of interest, all of the members – whose job it is to review the scientific and ethical merit of all grant applications -- must be from out of state.
The peer review Committee forwards its recommendations on grant recipients to the advisory committee.
Hughes said the advisory committee studies the peer review committee’s assessment of grant applications, decides on the disbursal of the grants, and reviews the progress of the research projects. It judges the relative merit of basic research versus clinical research, and monitors the steady advance of stem cell research towards “tissue engineering” applications in medicine. As the grant program draws to an end in 2015, the committee will be evaluating the efficacy of the grants and the best ways to leverage state monies to advance bioscience in Connecticut.
Hughes, whose primary areas of interest are bioethics, the psychology and neurophysiology of moral cognition, biotechnology, the social construction of death, emerging technologies and artificial intelligence, received his B.A. from Oberlin College, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.