With stem-cell win, proponents aim at top-flight researchers

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The narrow passage of Amendment 2 has the life-science industry scrambling to recruit renowned scientists.


The Associated Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It may be years before embryonic stem-cell research pays off with the kinds of treatments or cures many in the scientific community are hoping for, but one development after Tuesday's vote will be immediately noticeable.

The narrow passage of the amendment protecting such research in Missouri has the state's life sciences industry scrambling to recruit renowned scientists who specialize in human embryonic stem cells.

At Kansas City's Stowers Institute for Medical Research, which hinged its expansion plans on Tuesday's vote, president William Barlow Neaves is seeking out scientists to look at the new approaches to stem-cell research protected by the amendment's passage.

The institute already conducts early stem-cell research with animals and adult stem-cell research using both human and animal models. While researchers there had already engaged in early stem-cell research, they felt limited in what they could do and used animals instead of human embryos.

"We anticipate that Stowers researchers currently conducting cutting-edge research on adult stem cells may expand their work to include research with embryonic stem cells," Neaves said.

Scientists and researchers with stem-cell expertise had balked at relocating to Missouri, citing uncertainty over Tuesday's vote. But even with the amendment's narrow passage -- it was approved with just 51 percent of the vote -- supporters are nonetheless emboldened to begin what figures to be a years-long search for breakthroughs.

'Going to take some time'

"My concern after the election was that people thought we were sitting on the sidelines with cures for patients," said Larry Shapiro, dean of the School of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis. "It's very promising science, and I think there are many accomplished and noted scientists who believe that. But we don't know exactly how to handle these embryonic stem cells and get them to do what we want them to. It's going to take some time.

"I think the immediate change you will see from scientists here and ones we recruit will be their willingness to take that next step," Shapiro said.

Donn Rubin, chairman of the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, said that although the research community won't see "huge change" now, Tuesday's vote lifted the threat of legislators who have tried in recent years to criminalize the research.

"That threat kept some researchers from coming here and would put a damper on the tremendous growth that we've seen in our life sciences industry," Rubin said.

Opponents are pointing to the measure's slim margin of approval as proof the research lacks a statewide mandate, and some lawmakers are already vowing to fight for restrictions. State Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, said earlier this week that the House and Senate, which remains under Republican control, may work to give voters another say on embryonic stem-cell research.

Critics say embryonic stem-cell research, which involves the destruction of a human embryo, is an assault on a human life.

The technique of using human embryos, known as therapeutic cloning or somatic cell nuclear transfer, involves replacing the nucleus of an unfertilized human egg with the nucleus from a skin or nerve cell. The altered egg then is stimulated to grow in a lab dish. Researchers remove the resulting stem cells, sacrificing the donor embryo in the process.

"We think it's bad science, bad law, bad economics for our state," said Jaci Winship, executive director of Missourians Against Human Cloning. She dismissed the economic and scientific impact on Missouri as "all hype."

Neaves, of Stowers, insists research on embryos holds more promise than work on adult stem cells, which can develop into only a limited number of body cells and tissues. Embryonic stem cells have the potential of turning into any of the body's cell types, Neaves said, potentially reversing once-incurable conditions.

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