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In Heartland, Stem Cell Research Meets Fierce Opposition

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 10, 2005

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The moral debate over embryonic stem cells stretches far beyond Capitol Hill to state capitals and research parks across the country, where a fierce competition is underway from Maryland to California for cutting-edge research and the profits that could follow.

In Maryland yesterday, advocates began a campaign to secure state money for stem cell research. A House of Delegates effort to spend $23 million a year on research died in the Senate earlier this year after a filibuster threat by Republicans and conservative Democrats.

Here in Missouri, a similar battle is raging over the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, which has built a $300 million laboratory and stocked it with sophisticated machines for nearly 200 scientists recruited from as far afield as China and Argentina.

Yet social conservatives in the Missouri legislature are effectively blocking some of the most ambitious research envisioned by the Stowers staff, saying that research with embryonic stem cells is so immoral it should be a crime.

"I believe that a human embryo is worthy of legal protection," said state Sen. Matt Bartle (R), who vows to press the fight. "Western medicine has been founded on a principle: First, do no harm."

Repeated legislative efforts by Bartle and his colleagues forced the Stowers Institute to curtail recruiting and stop planning for a second 600,000-square-foot facility. At the same time, those efforts have spurred creation of an impromptu statewide alliance of business leaders, liberal science advocates and antiabortion Republicans who favor the research for reasons of health care and job growth.

Advocates in Missouri and beyond expect the outcome to have broad implications for politics and science as states struggle to define the limits of medical inquiry. This is true whether the research money comes from private pockets, as in Kansas City, or the public treasury, as in California, where $3 billion approved by voters has been blocked by lawsuits and legislative maneuvers.

Just last month, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) announced that he had helped hide $10 million in the state budget that will now be used for embryonic stem cell research. Several leading Republicans criticized him for the move, and the Catholic Conference of Illinois said he "betrayed his own office, both morally and politically."

South Dakota forbids research on all embryos, yet New Jersey is bankrolling an embryonic stem cell program. In New York City, a private foundation recently gave $50 million to three medical institutions for early stem cell work to sustain the city's research credentials.

"The blue states have been rushing to embrace opportunities in stem cell research," said Patrick M. Kelly, vice president of state government relations at the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization. "California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, now Illinois. That has not been a phenomenon that has swept through the red states."

At the federal level, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) announced recently that he would support federal funding for stem cell research, a move that could spur new legislation. The House has already approved such a proposal, allowing research on stem cells taken from unused embryos at fertility clinics. President Bush has restricted government funding to a limited number of stem cell lines that existed in 2001 and has threatened to veto any expansion.

Pam Fichter, president of Missouri Right to Life, said the dispute in Missouri "is going to create the precedent on whether it's okay to create human life for the sole purpose of destroying it."

Stowers scientific director Robb Krumlauf said he fears that legislation prompted by "the views of a small number of people" will hinder scientific creativity.

All Stowers researchers now focusing on adult stem cells "say they must be able to work on embryonic stem cells to move their research forward," he said. "This is a local battle here, but I see it being played out in all places. People believe if they can win the battle in Missouri, they can win it anywhere."

Missouri is by any estimation a red state -- it went strongly for Bush in November and elected as governor Matt Blunt, an antiabortion Republican. Kansas City and St. Louis, which sandwich a largely rural state, have been investing increasingly in life sciences, especially bioscience and plant science, which both cities see as a growth engine.

When the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute got started about five years ago, it found annual research spending among eight institutions -- six in Missouri and two in neighboring Kansas -- to be $104 million. Last year, the figure was $243 million, said the group's president, organic chemist Bill Duncan. There were 165 life sciences companies in the area at last count, with about 20,000 employees.

At least 40 states are trying to become centers for life sciences, said Donn Rubin, director of the Coalition for Plant and Life Sciences, and Missourians are "fighting that battle with one arm tied behind our back."

"The efforts . . . have been held hostage by the stem cell threat," he said.

The leader of the opposition is Bartle, 40, a lawyer serving his third term in the Senate. Not only is the process of producing embryonic stem cells unethical, he says, but it will be proved unnecessary by the progress of research itself -- a notion dismissed by expert scientists. As Bartle sees it, what Missouri scientists want to do is create embryos for science and clone humans.

Noting how the issue has split the Missouri GOP, he criticizes business-minded Republicans.

"You have 'fiscal Republicans' who see this differently from the social conservatives," Bartle said. "You have a gleeful media and gleeful Democrats who have found a wedge issue and are trying to exploit it. Here we are, sitting in the conservative Midwest, and I can't get this through the legislature. It's an intriguing, baffling political situation."

Enough Republicans have joined Democrats to prevent Bartle from passing legislation, but he said he is not giving up. There is sufficient persistence on Bartle's side to create a standoff that has confounded the science community. The specific issue is a stem cell technology called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).

Stem cells can become any type of cell in the human body. Early or embryonic stem cells are considered by much of the scientific establishment to have the greatest potential, but much research remains to be done. In SCNT, the nucleus of an unfertilized egg is replaced with the nucleus of an ordinary body cell that contains a full set of genetic information. Within days, this develops into a human embryo -- or at least something akin to an embryo -- within which is nestled a cluster of stem cells.

Bush unequivocally opposes the procedure, telling Science magazine last year that "anything short of a comprehensive ban would permit human embryos to be created, developed and destroyed solely for research purposes." Some critics consider the procedure, which produced the cloned sheep Dolly, to be tantamount to human cloning. Scientists counter that the cells should not be considered an embryo because they are not implanted in a woman's uterus and, further, that no institution contemplates cloning a person. A number of scientists and activists favor the research along with a ban on creating a cloned human.

That is not good enough for the Missouri opposition.

"We oppose embryonic stem cell research because it destroys the embryo," said Fichter of Missouri Right to Life. "They're trying to define human life by its geography. It doesn't make any difference if it's in a petri dish, implanted in the womb or in a nursery. A human life is a human life. Are we going to say a 4-year-old is more human than a 2-year-old?"

Missouri's antiabortion lobby likes to point out that 128 of the 162 House members and 28 of 34 senators oppose abortion. Yet in the last legislative session, the centerpiece bill to strengthen limits on abortion did not pass because SCNT opponents linked it to the stem cell debate and were derailed by Republicans. Blunt, elected in November with considerable conservative support, drew fire from the Republican right for backing SCNT.

The Stowers Institute and Washington University in St. Louis joined forces, pitching the potential benefits and saying that the anti-research forces do not have a monopoly on morality. They hired Fred Steeper, a leading Republican pollster, who said two in three residents in a poll of 600 adults supported SCNT even after being told the opponents' objections. The edge was stronger among Democrats and independents than among Republicans, who favored SCNT 52 to 44 percent.

"We want to have the benefits of science and see that the research is conducted responsibly, in a way that doesn't disrespect human life," said Myra J. Christopher, president of the Center for Practical Bioethics.

Business interests have played an important role in the Missouri debate -- critics accused Blunt of siding with Wall Street instead of Main Street -- and in Kansas, where the legislature last year allocated as much as $500 million over the next 10 years for research universities and bioscience business development.

Supporters say that legislative impediments to stem cell research could lead to a decline in research and medical care, with money and talented staff flowing to states with a different approach. Stowers President William B. Neaves said the institute would be working with early stem cells if it were not for Bartle's attempt to make the research a crime. He said two talented researchers are unwilling to move to Kansas City until the matter has been clarified.

Rubin, chairman of an organization lobbying for the research, said: "There's a huge economic stake. If a ban on research were to pass, it would send an anti-science signal that would cut off at the knees the efforts we've put in place to attract this industry."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company