The leaders of four Missouri research institutions, including the University of Missouri system, are asking legislators to reject bills that would criminalize stem-cell research.
They said a ban on nuclear transfer — one type of stem-cell research — would undermine efforts to create economic growth based on life sciences, as well as limit Missourians’ access to first-rate health care.
Although the letter recommends that Missouri pass a ban on reproductive cloning, as several U.S. states and many European nations have done, it describes the difference between nuclear transfer and reproductive cloning.
Nuclear transfer uses the genetic material and cells to create stem cells. It does not create a new life with a different genetic makeup.
In the letter, the four leaders also offer state legislators any assistance they may need to understand details of the issue.
The coalition of the four research institutions is unprecedented.
Biotech industry proponents are worried that Missouri could outlaw stem-cell research, just as California is financially supporting it. They fear researchers and firms would be siphoned from Missouri.
“There are lots of incoming legislators for whom this issue will be brand new, and that presents a tremendous educational challenge,” said Donn Rubin, executive director of the Coalition for Plant and Life Sciences, which is working to build a biotech industry in St. Louis.
Rubin said that the letter was an attempt to make lawmakers aware they are being misled and that the science and medical communities oppose the message being circulated in Jefferson City.
The letter signers include William Danforth, chairman of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center; Elson Floyd, president of the University of Missouri system; Mark Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis; and William Neaves, president of the Stowers Institute for Medical Science in Kansas City.
“I’m pleased that the University of Missouri has taken this position,” said Mike Roberts, director of MU’s Life Sciences Center. “It is a very courageous move for a major research university to take. There is no question that there should be no reproductive cloning, but the benefits of somatic cell nuclear transfer far outweigh the problems.”
The Stowers Institute has said it would not build its second center in Missouri if the state outlaws stem-cell research.
Somatic cell nuclear transfer involves taking the nucleus of a patient’s cell, for example a skin cell, and placing it into an egg cell from which the nucleus has been removed. This new cell is then coaxed into a 200-cell organism called a blastocyst, from which stem-cells can be extracted. These stem-cells become a perfect match of the patient’s tissue and reduce the risk of rejection.
Rep. Jim Lembke, R-Mehlville, and Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee’s Summit, are seeking co-sponsors for bills that would criminalize a form of stem-cell research, calling it an unethical and immoral form of human cloning.
The biotech coalition plans to follow up with information on somatic cell nuclear transfer.
Lembke already e-mailed colleagues a similar document on “stem-cell research, cloning and human embryos.”
Human embryonic stem cells are created in the first days after conception and are the building blocks of the human body. Scientists think they will someday be able to coax stem cells to turn into healthy cells to treat a wide range of ailments, including diabetes, heart disease and spinal cord injuries.
Many social conservatives who say life begins at conception view the work as immoral because days-old embryos are destroyed during research.
The letter also said: “Please be aware that the versions we have seen in the past go far beyond preventing a cloned baby or fetus and instead stop the people of Missouri from engaging in the age-old and noble effort to heal the sick, an act of compassion endorsed by all major religions. We urge you to reject attempts to ban nuclear transfer for medical research.”
Washington University has used stem-cells to regenerate nerve tissue in rats with severed spinal cords and is awaiting FDA approval on clinical trials using stem cells to treat leukemia.
Stowers Institute is the second-largest endowment for basic medical research in the country.
Earlier this year, the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City also issued a statement urging the General Assembly to not pursue a ban on nuclear transfer because of the medical and economical impact it would produce.
— The Associated Press contributed to this article.