Scientists seek assurance from state for stem cell research

Protective law needed to lure best and brightest, experts say
Thursday, April 27, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:22 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Coffee to go. Arrive early. Take a cell phone call. Be enthusiastic.

That’s how one of Popular Science’s Brilliant Ten, Dr. Kevin Eggan, prepares for a lecture on identifying and curing neurological diseases.

Harvard’s Golden Boy of stem cell research flips through an engaging multi-media presentation for a guest lecture at MU’s veterinary medicine auditorium with zeal. Words such as “compassionate” mix with “parabiosis” as he accentuates his and other colleagues’ attempts to generate embryonic stem cells to match a patient’s own cells. Embryonic stem cells can be turned into any type of cell, and this blank slate makes them coveted by scientists, who seek ways around cancerous and mutated cells.

The brown-haired 32-year-old grew up near cornfields in Normal, Ill. His father and love of obstacles took him climbing in the Pacific Northwest during the summers and most recently he tackled Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro. But the video-game fanatic is also a realist.

There are challenges to his work. Diseases have a complex nature that makes them difficult to study. Stem cell lines are temperamental. People are reluctant to take part in scientific experiments. And the toughest hurdle of all can’t be solved by repeatedly culturing cells in a laboratory.

Researchers across the country are facing legislative roadblocks from those who equate embryonic stem cell research to taking human lives much like the abortion debate through a volatile values struggle. Every year Missouri state lawmakers file proposals to limit or eliminate stem cell research or make those who do it criminals.

If efforts to block embryonic stem cell research are successful, dollars and talented professionals could be lost, says a group called Missouri for Lifesaving Cures. Backers include MU, Washington University and Missouri biotech industry officials.

To stop business from going elsewhere and to recruit better researchers, the group proposes a state constitutional amendment to guarantee research protection under federal guidelines. They need to collect 150,000 signatures by May 9 to put the proposal on the November ballot. They say voter approval could convince better scientists to come to Missouri – Eggan, for instance.

He’s the blue chip scientist, sought by Kansas City’s $2 billion-endowed Stowers Institute for Medical Research. Stowers attempted to woo him two years ago. Eggan had accepted a Harvard faculty position and declined.

But his reservation wasn’t just about bad timing.

Since Eggan wouldn’t come on board, Jim Stowers, an MU graduate and founder of mutual fund’s multi-billion-dollar American Century Companies, and his wife, Virginia Stowers, set up a separate medical research organization in Delaware to fund human embryonic stem cell research outside of Missouri, including Eggan’s work in Massachusetts.

So far Eggan has received about $6 million for his research at Harvard. Stowers president and CEO William Neaves says this could mark the beginning for the institution’s efforts out of state.

The case for stem cells

Derek Rapp will never forget Nov. 15, 2004. Rapp and his wife, Emily, waited for their son Turner, 12, to finish his soccer game during his early afternoon recess to tell him he had Type 1 Diabetes.

Rapp suspected something might be wrong when the 4-foot 9-inch athlete — a competitive tennis player and bicyclist — could not quench his thirst.

“We really didn’t know the implications at the time,” Rapp said.

Since that day 17 months ago, the lean middle child with a brown crew cut and chocolate-brown eyes has pricked his finger about 4,000 times to test his insulin levels and given himself more than 2,000 shots. Turner and his family, including 14-year-old sister Helen and 8-year-old brother William, have learned how to calculate Turner’s insulin needs. Turner will sometimes sleep through middle-of-the-night insulin checks from Derek and Emily. When he does wake it’s to drink orange juice or eat something that will provide carbohydrates that enter his bloodstream quickly because he is hypoglycemic.

Last summer Helen organized a musical revue with help from her teenage friends in St. Louis County. The effort raised about $4,000 in donations for Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, on which Rapp serves on a committee for research.

Researchers think that embryonic stem cells could turn into cells that secrete necessary insulin for those like Turner suffering from Type 1 Diabetes.

Scientific research is also important to Rapp’s professional life. He is CEO of Divergence Inc., a company employing 22 people full time in St. Louis County, working to knock out soybean, nematode and parasitic infections in plants.

Rapp says voters approving stem cell protection could determine the future of biomedical research statewide.

“This will reflect the climate that will exist in research institutions and who will participate,” Rapp says.

He uses the phrase “bellwether issue.”

”I heard a senior person at Monsanto say it,” he says. “There’s no doubt that this is a litmus test of issues on how to gauge whether Missouri is a favorable place to conduct science.”

The economics of research

All MU research packs a $440 million punch annually in Missouri and supports 9,000 jobs, according to MU’s research division report. Money specific for life sciences can’t be accurately tracked since it is spread across several projects and disciplines including Arts & Science, School of Medicine, College of Agriculture and College of Veterinary Medicine.

Two MU researchers base their studies around human embryonic stem cells. They are Dr. John Critser and Dr. R. Michael Roberts, both of whom have permission to use federally regulated human embryonic stem cell lines, but not on any lines that may subsequently come into existence.

In August of 2001, President Bush approved human embryonic stem cell research on existing stem cell lines. Researchers across the U.S. are only authorized to use these approximately 20 lines. Roberts’ research focuses on maintaining embryonic stem cells so they don’t change into a certain cell type by growing them in a reduced-oxygen environment. He’s testing whether low oxygen maintains that special quality that allows them to become any cell type.

Critser’s work emphasizes low temperatures and finding optimum conditions for preserving stem cell lines as they are passed along from researcher to researcher. It’s more of an infrastructure task, he says.

Critser says MU might be missing out already.

Missouri’s political climate and stem-cell tap dance kept MU from bidding to bring a National Stem Cell Bank to Columbia, Critser said. National Institutes of Health and university officials recommended against putting a proposal together because of the threatening ban. Instead, the University of Wisconsin was awarded the bank on its campus.

“It certainly makes me and others uneasy. (The environment) is very unstable at best, and at worst is very negative,” Critser said.

If the ballot initiative passes, Crister predicts MU research would increase at a rapid pace.

Roberts said it’s unclear what a lack of research protection might mean to his work or the university.

“A problem resides around language in the Missouri statutes, which state that life begins at the moment of conception,” he said. “If interpreted broadly that could mean that all stem cell research, including my own, could be illegal. I don’t want to be in that position.”

What sort of ripple effect is yet to be determined if such research is restricted, said Dr. Robert Hall, associate vice provost for research & director of compliance.

“Any life scientist proposing to come to Mizzou would probably take the political climate into consideration and probably be given pause,” Hall said.

Three years ago, Analytical Bio-Chemistry Laboratories just north of Interstate 70, west of Columbia, was about to fold. Byron Hill, who calls himself a “turnaround guy,” took over the company, which currently employs 250 people, twice the number employed in 2003. Business has increased 20 percent annually since then. Hill said the growth was possible through hiring employees with science-related college degrees. It also helped that venture capitalist companies such as Los Angeles-based Celerity Partners are on board. And the company is receiving a few breaks from county officials.

Last fall, the Boone County Commission passed an incentive policy to relieve life sciences and other high-tech companies. The policy change helped keep the company, which needed to expand its operating facilities, in the area. The company had received offers from other cities.

Although the lab’s business centers on pharmaceutical research for companies such as Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, they are a local company tied indirectly to the state’s future in life sciences.

Most services they provide to companies — such as testing how a drug would work its way through the body — are analytically and chemically related, Hill says as he leads a tour of the laboratories. One room contains machines to simulate a human stomach to test effects of medication on the human system. Another room measures how the chemicals in a plastic container affect prescription drugs.

Hill calls stem cell research “sound” and says such breakthroughs involving the research would lend themselves indirectly to the company.

“We’re very supportive of the ballot initiative,” he says. “We believe anything that results in criminalizing researchers is wrong.”

Keeping Missouri competitive

In early April about 19,500 corporate and government officials mill about exhibits and pavilions in Chicago at the annual Bio 2006 International Convention. Representatives from Iowa to Scandinavia to New Zealand show off for new markets. Mike Mills, Missouri Economic Development deputy director, is there. So is Gov. Matt Blunt. They are on a mission to recruit companies to add on to the state’s life science organizations list of Monsanto, Pfizer, Washington University and Sigma Aldrich.

According to the National Science Foundation, Missouri ranks 11th nationally in federal funding of life science research and development. That amount is about $658 million annually. But the state’s reputation of being slow to scientific progress makes it a tough sell. Mills admits the threat of restrictions in Missouri’s publicized stem cell tug-of-war makes his job difficult.

“It’s a worry to all. Look at how aggressive research is in life sciences. As the science comes to fruition and the technology improves, we have to become commercially viable,” Mills said.

Kelly Gillespie, executive director of the Missouri Biotechnology Association, a non-profit trade association promoting the biomedical industry statewide, is waiting to see what will happen. “Many of our companies feel they are in a battle to find the best scientists,” Gillespie said.

Researchers could go elsewhere.

Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich solicited more than 50 scientists from Missouri, including Washington University researchers in St. Louis, to come across state lines where their research will be protected.

Opportunity also exists abroad – in Great Britain, South Korea and even Singapore, where restrictions are few or none and governments encourage advances.

Stowers Institute’s hefty endowment keeps a dense bubble around research there, so far.

“This makes Stowers researchers highly resistant to invitations to move elsewhere,” said Neaves, Stowers president and CEO. “However, this would change if the threat of criminalizing legislation persists. This is why a ballot initiative to resolve this threat is so important.”

As for Washington University, Steven Teitelbaum, who is in charge of recruiting, keeps his fingers crossed. “I’m concerned for my university and if we will be able to be ranked in the top three or four [medical teaching schools],” he says. “I’m convinced faculty will not come here. We’ve already faced that with some recruits. Stem cell is not an isolated form of research, but if you can’t access it as a tool, you can’t be competitive.”

No substitute for legal protection

Kevin Eggan first visited Stowers’ centrally located Kansas City campus in June of 2004. He walked through the front doors to encounter what looks more like a Westin Hotel than a research facility. The place is filled with anigre and macore African wood, contemporary art and feng shui-placed modern furniture.

He stayed in the visitor suites, nicer than most swanky apartments, and walked by the subsidized cafeteria with temperature-controlled food bars made of granite, orchestrated by executive chef Peter Kestler, one of about 10 executive chefs for the 2002 Winter Olympics. The outdoor patio provides a glimpse of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Jim and Virginia Stowers set up the facility that bears their name in 2000. The couple was inspired by their previous successful battles with cancer – Jim, prostate, and Virginia, breast.

They ensure prestige from peer institutions with a ruling seven-member scientific advisory board comprised of National Academy of Science members who are responsible for hiring principal investigators (lab leaders) with a goal to expand 600,000 square-feet every decade. The couple personally gave $4 million in an effort to get a stem cell measure on the state ballot to protect research. They also created an organization based in Delaware to fund human embryonic endeavors, including Eggan’s research at Harvard.

Staffing the best of the best is Stowers’ aim and they can back up that goal: 49 publications in top peer-edited scientific journals such as Nature and Science in 2005 alone.

Eggan thought his visit’s intention was to present a lecture on “Epigenetic Reprogramming after Nuclear Transfer,” but it turned into a recruiting trip.

No amount of prestige or money could lure Eggan to Stowers in June of 2004. He could not rationalize taking the risk of waking up some morning in Kansas City and finding that he had become a felon because of the research he was conducting.

Neaves, Stowers’ president and CEO, backed off.

But if the ballot measure passes in November, the Stowers Institute will resume efforts to recruit scientists such as Eggan to Missouri.

He would jump on board.

“No question about it. It’s in my contract,” Eggan says, referring to the funding he is currently receiving from Stowers. “They are supporting me out of state. It would be more desirable for everyone if the situation was resolved and I could come to Kansas City.”

And if research protection is banned?

“Then the future growth of the Stowers Institute would occur somewhere other than Missouri and we would view it as a very negative outcome,” Neaves said. “It would severely damage those institutions not to just recruit, but severely damage the ability to retain biomedical scientists who have already been retained. It sends an anti-science message to the world.”

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