Comments about stem-cell research scrutinized

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Gordon Lamb, interim University of Missouri president, is drawing both criticism and praise for condemning a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban a form of embryonic stem-cell research.

Last week, Lamb said the proposed amendment to ban somatic cell nuclear transfer could permanently destroy research efforts at state universities and private labs.

"In their effort to eliminate somatic cell nuclear transfer research, the group championing this amendment is taking the first step to controlling and impeding Missouri's research agenda and potential for future research," Lamb said in a written statement.

The controversial procedure involves injecting a human egg into a cell. The egg is then stimulated to grow as if it had been fertilized by a sperm. Scientists remove the resulting stem cells for research, destroying the newly formed embryo.

Lamb's comments drew a rebuke from state Rep. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis.

"I don't think strong political statements like that from university officials are appropriate," Onder said Friday.

Onder, a physician and member of the state Life Sciences Research Board, said the ballot initiative would outlaw only human cloning research.

"No one's accomplished it -- the cloning of a human embryo -- much less has anyone ever derived stem cells from a cloned human embryo, much less has anyone ever done any successful experiments with such cloned embryonic stem cells. So the idea that it would shut down all of research or whatever it is that he said, that's just frankly absurd," Onder said.

Onder said lawmakers would be asking Lamb some "tough questions."

"Ultimately we appropriate money not to make the president look good or to bolster his career, but for the good of the students in higher education institutions in our state," Onder said. "So again, I would hope it wouldn't influence the appropriations. But by the same token, it doesn't seem like he's acting appropriately, making statements like that."

Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, is undecided on the proposed amendment and had mixed feelings about Lamb's comments.

"Any time you stake out your territory, you're going to be open to criticism, ... but I guess it's his decision to make," Hobbs said. "The question is: Is that the voice of the curators, or is it the voice of Gordon Lamb?"

But some lawmakers supported Lamb.

Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, said Lamb showed "courage and independence."

"The problem is we have legislators who want to vote one way but feel forced to vote another way by the right to life community that has a strong hold on our legislature right now," she said.

Legislators also disagreed on whether the issue will have an impact on the search for someone to succeed Lamb, who has said he does not want the president's job permanently.

Outgoing House Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said the new president would need to support "a strong, vibrant, robust research environment."

"You cannot be in favor of a more restrictive research environment and be the president of a major university system," Harris said.

But Hobbs said the stem-cell issue is not relevant to the search for president.

"To be honest with you, the next president of the university needs to only have one opinion, and that's what his bosses, the curators, tell him," Hobbs said. "He can have a personal opinion, that's one thing. But, you know, I don't know if they'll ask that question or not."

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