JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Since opening its doors in 2000, Kansas City's Stowers Institute for Medical Research has recruited scientists from across the country to do stem cell research in the hope that cures can be found for diseases such as diabetes and dementia.
But that research may be in jeopardy.
A Senate committee voted 7-2 Monday night to endorse legislation intending to ban "therapeutic cloning" -- a procedure used to create stem cells. Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, and Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, voted in favor of the bill, which now goes to the Senate.
If the ban becomes law, the institute would look elsewhere to build its planned 600,000-square-foot expansion, which would cost Missouri hundreds of new jobs, said William Neaves, president of the institute. A ban on therapeutic cloning also could have a chilling effect on life science research statewide, he said.
"It would be widely interpreted in Missouri as an anti-science measure," Neaves said.
Medical researchers from across the state have been lobbying legislators to defeat the bill, saying it could devastate Missouri's economy by driving away the state's biotech companies and hurting its research institutions' efforts to find medical cures.
But supporters of the ban say it's not about money or possible cures; it's about preserving a human life. Bill sponsor Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, said therapeutic cloning results in the destruction of a human embryo.
"Missouri needs to forbid scientists from creating human embryos with the purpose of destroying them," Bartle said.
Stem cells form early in an embryo's development and can mature into a variety of cells to form organs and other body parts. Some scientists believe such cells could be used to help repair damaged body parts and cure diseases.
In therapeutic cloning, the nucleus of an unfertilized woman's egg is removed and replaced with the nucleus of another cell from a human body. The egg is then stimulated to divide, as it would when fertilized by a sperm, and the stem cells are harvested.
Several other states, including Arkansas, Iowa, Michigan, North Dakota and South Dakota, have banned therapeutic cloning. But some states, including California and New Jersey, explicitly allow the cloning. California voters, hoping to lure researchers, approved a measure in November authorizing the state to use $3 billion in bonds for stem cell research.
Missouri ranked 12th in the nation in 2002 for university research and development dollars spent on life sciences, according to a report by the Battelle Memorial Institute, an Ohio-based not-for-profit that develops new technologies for government and private industry. The report found Missouri universities funneled $572,000 into life science research that year; nationwide, universities spent $21.4 million on life sciences research in 2002.
But if therapeutic cloning is criminalized, it could derail Missouri's efforts to become a national leader in life science research, said William Danforth, Washington University chancellor emeritus and chairman of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis.
"It would be a terrible blow to our research institutions," Danforth said. "It would give people the impression that Missouri was a very backwards state and that we were not friendly to research, and I think it would make it more difficult to attract and hold our best people."
Leaders from the state's top research institutions -- including University of Missouri President Elson Floyd and Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton -- sent a letter to lawmakers in December urging the legislature to defeat the bill.
Supporters of therapeutic cloning contend a ban also could hurt the economy by causing emerging biotech companies to flee the state. A recent survey of life science companies based in St. Louis conducted by Danforth found that 10 of the 14 companies polled said they would be less likely to remain in Missouri if the therapeutic cloning ban is approved.
Danforth said biotech companies want to be based in states that encourage scientific discovery and research instead of limit it.
"Science is no longer a solitary guy in a white coat," Danforth said. "It's a communal effort. Scientists want to be around other scientists. They want to be in centers where science is being done."
Bartle said he does not believe his bill would hurt Missouri's economy or universities. He said research could still be conducted on adult stem cells, which has a track record for producing cures, unlike embryonic stem cells.
"It's a threat that sounds really ominous, but the legislature is well accustomed to being threatened," Bartle said.
During Monday's committee vote, Sen. Chuck Graham wiped tears from his eyes after explaining his opposition to the bill. Paralyzed as a teenager, Graham said he has given up hope of walking again. But others with injuries look optimistically toward stem cell research, he said.
"I want to extend hope to people," said Graham, D-Columbia.