Missouri scientists quietly conduct stem-cell research

Saturday, September 30, 2006

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The attention-grabbing TV ads, boisterous billboards and raucous radio spots offered at times by both sides in the growing debate over human embryonic stem-cell research obscure a more modest reality: Only a handful of scientists in Missouri are actually doing such work.

None can be found at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, although some scientists there work with adult stem cells. The institute's founder has funneled more than $15 million toward the effort to add protection of embryonic stem-cell research to the Missouri Constitution.

At Washington University in St. Louis, only one researcher has obtained permission to use federally approved human embryonic stem-cell lines.

And no one in Missouri -- or anywhere else -- conducts somatic cell nuclear transfer, or therapeutic cloning, a technique involving replacing the nucleus of an unfertilized egg with the nucleus from a skin or nerve cell. The altered egg is stimulated to grow in a lab dish, and researchers remove the resulting stem cells.

Ground zero, as it were, for human embryonic stem-cell research in the state can be found in a nondescript lab at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where a small research team led by professor Michael Roberts is exploring how embryos develop in the early stages of pregnancy.

Around the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center there is little talk of potential cures for diabetes, stroke, Alzheimer's and the other deadly diseases supporters of the Missouri stem-cell research and Cures Initiative believe such research might lead to.

The initiative, also known as Amendment 2, appears on the Nov. 7 ballot. The proposed amendment would guarantee that any federally allowed stem-cell research and treatments can occur in Missouri, including early stem-cell research.

"We're quite a lot further [away] than some of the strongest proponents pretend," Roberts said.

He embraces his responsibility to offer the public, politicians and ballot-battling protagonists an unadorned view of what such research is -- and what it is not.

He has spoken to church groups in Columbia and civic leaders in rural outposts and with conservative talk radio hosts. For the past three years, Roberts has taught a Saturday morning lecture at the university as part of a program that seeks to demystify science.

"What I dislike about a lot of [the public debate] is the rhetoric," he said. "The people who are opposing the research often don't understand it and are very vociferous about it. And the people who support it exaggerate the immediate possibilities."

"What I like as a scientist is being able to present what I think is an accurate account of what it is, trying to make technology understandable."

Roberts, a 65-year-old British transplant with a penchant for the comedy of the Monty Python troupe, came to Missouri two decades ago after 15 years at the University of Florida.

His bachelor's and doctorate degrees are from Oxford University in England. He started his career as a botanist before gravitating to plant physiology and biochemistry.

Most of Roberts' work in stem-cell research has involved mouse and cow embryos; he only obtained the human stem cell lines three years ago.

Among his scientific peers, Roberts is perhaps best known for his work studying animal pregnancies. Last year, Scientific American magazine named Roberts one of the top 50 scientists in the country. And in 2003, he and colleague Fuller Bazer from Texas A&M University shared the prestigious Wolf Prize in Agriculture from an Israeli charitable foundation.

Roberts' evenhanded approach to the contentious issue comes as no surprise to his colleagues.

Jake Halliday, an assistant professor of management in the university's College of Business, called Roberts "responsible and level-headed."

"For him, it's a matter of science," said Halliday, who is also president and chief executive officer of the Missouri Innovation Center, an organization formed to make it easier for campus scientists such as Roberts to take their research into the commercial marketplace.

Roberts is cautious to avoid endorsing the proposed amendment or to criticize opponents who argue that embryo destruction in the name of research is akin to taking a human life.

So while amendment supporters and opponents continue to duke it out on the airwaves and in the court of public opinion, Roberts and his research team quietly plug along with the mundane, often tedious tasks of basic scientific research.

"It's not going to affect my research," he said. "I'm happy enough just using the cell lines. The sort of research I'm doing is exploratory. If it does happen to turn out something that's useful therapeutically, it would have to be done with some other cell lines, and probably by somebody else."

At the same time, Roberts expects the current rancor over embryonic stem-cell research to subside with time, much like early criticism of in vitro fertilization - which also involves the manipulation and destruction of embryos - is now an accepted practice in family planning.

"I think it will just be routine," he said. "We'll look back and say, 'What was all the fuss about?"'

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