With life sciences a target industry for economic development in Missouri, the stem-cell debate could have implications far beyond human health.
On one hand, legislators want to reap the economic benefits; on the other hand, they want to ban research that is a core component of development.
Research is 13 percent of the total state economy, according to a report published by Missouri Economic Research and Information Center. As much as 80 percent of the people employed in this industry are employed in health-care related jobs.
The political vision of Missouri politicians is to establish the I-70 Life Sciences Corridor, anchored in St. Louis by Washington University and the Danforth Center, at MU in mid-Missouri, and at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City.
State leaders want to generate more health-related jobs in life sciences, which pay an estimated 24 percent more than the average Missouri salary.
Within the life sciences, stem-cell research is an important part of the future. Supporters of such research at four of the state’s leading scientific centers — Washington University and the Danforth Center in St. Louis, the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City and the University of Missouri system — have expressed concern over the restrictive political climate in regard to research.
Travis Brown, a biotechnology industry lobbyist, said he is worried about a possible legislative ban on therapeutic cloning. Scientists fled neighboring Iowa after the state passed its cloning ban in early 2004, he said.
“If you were the big biotech company (looking to relocate or expand), you could choose to go to Missouri, where your research may or may not become illegal, or you could go to California, where they throw money at your feet,” he said. “Would you go to Missouri?”
Mike Chippendale, senior associate director of the MU Life Sciences Center, opposes legislative intervention in the stem-cell debate. Any such regulations should come from the federal level, he said, so states can have uniform rules and avoid the uncertainty created when an action is legal in one state and illegal in another.
“Restrictive state rules will have a chilling effect on the research,” Chippendale said. “I don’t want to see that happen.”
Kevin Buckley, a patent lawyer with Sonnenschein, Nath and Rosenthal in St. Louis, said some Fortune 1000 companies such as Sigma-Aldrich plan to move their chemical manufacturing interests overseas if a cloning ban is passed.
Economic Development Corp. of Kansas City recently voted to oppose all efforts to ban stem-cell research and cloning in the state after the Stowers Institute said it would stop the planned expansion of a research center. The institute has a $1.7 billion endowment for medical research and has attracted top researchers from all over the world.
State Sen. Matt Bartle of Lee’s Summit last year introduced a bill to prohibit reproductive and therapeutic cloning. Thrice defeated, he is planning a similar effort in the next legislative session.
Bartle said he isn’t convinced that his bill, if passed, would have halted the state’s life sciences initiative because most of Missouri’s life sciences are agriculture-based.
“Stem-cell research is a very small part of the initiative,” he said.
Bartle said that five other states, as well as several European countries, have banned human cloning.
In 1998, state lawmakers approved a measure that prohibits any state funding for stem-cell research. Three years later, Gov. Bob Holden signed an executive order that can be interpreted as prohibiting state money for any research that involves embryos as well as any kind of germ cells.
Supporters of stem-cell research in California are seeking their own legislative changes. On Tuesday, Golden State voters will consider Proposition 71, which authorizes California to sell $3 billion in bonds to fund stem-cell research.
Steven Teitelbaum, a pathology professor at Washington University, does not use stem cells in his research. Nor does he plan to do so.
But Teitelbaum said he wants the opportunity to use the technology to treat his patients should the need arise, which is why he is involved in building public opinion and lobbying the state legislature.
“As a doctor, I cannot say that a pinpoint-sized ball of cells that was created without (fertilization) is more important than a patient with Parkinson’s disease,” he said.
Washington University is one of the country’s top five recipients of federal research money from the National Institutes of Health. Its research on using stem cells to regenerate neurons in rats with severed spinal cords has gained international attention.
Teitelbaum said he is frustrated with what he calls the frequency of misinformation in the debate concerning the ban and would like all sides to stop misrepresenting the facts.
“It is beyond me that they can go before the Missouri legislature and state that there is no difference in quality between embryonic and adult stem cells,” he said.