Other states watching Missouri as vote on stem-cell amendment nears

Friday, September 15, 2006

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Ensconced in their research labs on the banks of the Charles River near Boston, Harvard scientists Kevin Eggan and Chad Cowan would seem to have little stake in the outcome of an election half a continent away.

Yet on Nov. 7 when Missouri voters consider a proposed state constitutional amendment protecting embryonic stem-cell research, the two Harvard researchers -- bankrolled by a combined $10.65 million from 82-year-old Kansas City billionaire James Stowers Jr. -- will have more than a passing interest.

So will leaders in neighboring Nebraska, where a university regent recently suggested the state pursue similar legal protections for the disputed research technique still in its infancy. In Kansas, officials are watching the vote because proposals to restrict research involving embryonic stem cells are likely to come before the legislature next year.

With a handful of laws on the books in other states that both restrict and encourage stem-cell research and a patchwork of proposals on the table in many more, the forthcoming vote has made Missouri a key battleground in the long-standing clash of science and morality.

"We're all looking at Missouri as a bellwether state," said Cowan, who turned down a job in Kansas City because of the uncertain political climate to instead work as a "satellite investigator" for Stowers in Cambridge, Mass., retaining his post at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

"People are viewing Missouri as the first domino in possibly a long chain."

At issue is Amendment 2, a proposal to guarantee that any federally allowed stem-cell research and treatments can occur in Missouri, including work on human embryos.

Supporters say the measure is needed to prevent legislative attempts to outlaw a form of stem-cell research that relies on cloning to produce an embryo. Their effort has been fueled by more than $16 million in donations, nearly all from Stowers, the founder of American Century Investments and the Stowers Institute for Medical Research.

Less than seven weeks before the election, both sides are ramping up their efforts to reach the hearts and minds of Missouri voters.

For the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, a group of university and business leaders, researchers and patient advocates, that means continuing a high-profile media campaign of TV, radio and newspaper ads, as well as interstate highway billboards.

The message focuses on what coalition spokeswoman Connie Farrow calls "personality" or "patient advocate" ads featuring supporters such as Jeff McCaffrey, 22, a former Air Force Academy cadet paralyzed from the waist down four years ago while riding in a friend's car on a weekend getaway to the Colorado mountains.

Though the technique is unproven, advocates of embryonic stem-cell research hope it will eventually generate treatment and cures for spinal cord injuries, diabetes, Alzheimer's and a host of other diseases.

Hundreds more supporters are hitting the state and county fair circuit, civic luncheons and the like through an Amendment 2 speakers' bureau.

"That's our most effective tool, having real people out there talking for us," Farrow said.

George Connor, an associate professor of political science at Missouri State University, calls the strategy far more effective than attempting to explain the nuances of somatic cell nuclear transfer, also known as therapeutic cloning.

Under that technique, the nucleus of an unfertilized human egg is replaced with the nucleus from a skin or nerve cell. The altered egg then is stimulated to grow in a lab dish, and researchers remove the resulting stem cells.

"You can't argue the science with most people," Connor said. "They just don't understand it."

A recent St. Louis Post-Dipatch survey showed the amendment enjoys the support of 58 percent of likely state voters -- a decline from previous surveys by the newspaper showing 62 percent support in June and 64 percent in January.

Connor suspects amendment opponents will continue to chip away at that support as their campaign escalates in the closing weeks. Amendment opponents said they expect to reach their fund-raising target of $3 million for a media blitz commencing in October.

"I don't think the anti-stem-cell coalition has really fired on all cylinders yet," said Connor, noting attempts earlier this year to challenge the ballot's wording in an unsuccessful lawsuit.

Amendment opponents, buoyed by support from religious leaders and groups such as Missouri Right to Life, have mobilized their own speakers' bureau in what they call a grassroots effort to defeat the proposal.

Their message is straightforward: despite the vast promise of embryonic stem cell research, the destruction of a human embryo, like abortion, is an assault on human life.

"It creates human life for experimentation," said Dr. Richard Chole, a Washington University professor of ear, nose and throat medicine and board member of Missourians Against Human Cloning.

Chole criticized supporters for linking the amendment's fate with economic development in Missouri, a connection made by, among others, Gov. Matt Blunt and former U.S. senator and U.N. ambassador John Danforth, both Republicans.

"If you convince people that there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they're going to invest in it," Chole said. "It's a tactic scientists have used for a long time."

Cowan, though, has his sights set firmly at the rainbow's end.

An expert in using embryonic stem cells to identify the role of environmental and genetic factors in disease development, Cowan notes how the Harvard institute -- primarily using private money because of President Bush's 2001 ban on federal support for such research -- has created 30 new embryonic cell lines and supplied samples from more than 700 of those lines to 120 labs worldwide.

Should the amendment pass, the 34-year-old native of Wichita, Kan., said he would "absolutely" consider returning closer to home to work at the Stowers institute, which has committed to an aggressive expansion, subject to voter approval.

Many of his colleagues at Harvard and other top research institutions feel the same way, Cowan said.

"It's a world-class research institute," he said. "There's no way I wouldn't consider it."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: