Forum discusses stem-cell therapy

Supporters want the state constitution to protect research.
Sunday, October 30, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:36 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Bonnie Riley’s son Bart was piloting an ultralight plane when he was 22. The ultralight crashed, and Bart lost his legs and also his eyesight as a result of brain injuries. Bart is now 35.

Riley went to the stem-cell educational forum Saturday in Boonville to learn more about stem cells, hoping that one day in the future Bart would be able to see again with the help of stem-cell therapy.

“My hope is that we can do something about stem-cell research in Missouri, that we can get through the hurdles of critical resistance to stem-cell research,” she said.

About 50 people attended the forum to learn more about stem-cell research and the proposed constitutional amendment that would protect it in Missouri.

“Surveys have shown that the majority of Missourians support stem-cell research,” said Sandra Aust, outreach coordinator for Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, a coalition of medical organizations, patient advocacy groups and citizens, which was formed earlier this year in response to legislation banning somatic cell nuclear transfer research in Missouri.

The coalition proposed the constitutional amendment in response to the legislation, which has been proposed in the legislature for four years in a row, Aust said.

“We believe that a small minority of people should not make rules that would prevent a majority of Missourians from getting treatment that might be allowed somewhere else,” she said. “It will make criminals of our researchers, doctors and our patients who might get these treatments somewhere else; this amendment is the only solution to that.”

The proposed amendment will guarantee that Missourians have access to any stem-cell research therapies or cures allowed under federal law and available in other states. The amendment also bans human cloning and stops the government from withholding funds from institutions to discourage them from doing early stem-cell research.

Aust said that Missouri has a huge investment in life sciences that would be harmed by this law.

She told the audience that most of the opposition to the stem-cell research comes out of a misconception.

“Scientists incorrectly started calling the stem cells embryonic stem cells, but in truth there are no embryos involved in somatic cell nuclear transfer,” she said.

Somatic cell nuclear transfer involves extracting the nucleus of an unfertilized egg and replacing it with the nucleus of a somatic cell, which is a cell from other body parts. This process is sometimes called therapeutic cloning because the resulting stem cells are harvested for potential medical therapies instead of being implanted in a woman’s uterus and allowed to develop into a baby.

Aust said that is the reason why these stem cells should not be called embryonic stem cells: They do not involve fertilization. Moreover, the stem cells are not harvested from an embryo but from a cell cluster called a “blastocyst,” which turns into an embryo only after it is implanted in the uterus, she said.

Riley said that it was important that Aust pointed out that the stem cells were not embryos.

“It puzzles me why little clusters of cells are more important to some people than our children, grandchildren and family members,” she said.

The issues of destruction of embryos and defining what is life are at the heart of the whole affair.

The issue is not that simple, said Mary Harris-Koth, pastor at Boonville United Church of Christ, who was a nurse for 20 years and had to undergo stem-cell transplant to treat lymphoma.

“It is coming to understanding where the life begins. For some people even an egg is a form of life,” Harris-Koth said.

Harris-Koth, a nurse, said that the forum helped her understand the stem-cell research better.

Alicia Myers, a freshman at Central Methodist University, said that she also learned a lot from the forum.

“I have always been interested in stem-cell research; being a quadriplegic, I think it is beneficial to my injury and others’ injuries,” she said.

Even though most people came to the forum hoping to learn more how it might help their friends and family members and supported the amendment, not everybody was impressed.

State Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, who was at the forum to “be with my constituents and to be informed,” said that the discussion was one-sided.

“It was one side of the story and not necessarily the side I support,” said Stouffer, a Republican. “I don’t support the amendment, but we will see what happens, but whatever the voters say is right.”

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