Professors try to clarify stem cell debate

Debate swirls around embryo status, law professor says.
Thursday, November 2, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:01 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Online, on television and throughout the media, advertisements for and against Amendment 2 permeate Missouri news outlets.

Voters must sort through facts and exaggerations of scientific procedures and legal implications to form an educated opinion of the initiative. And, according to some experts, most people’s opinions aren’t as polarized as the ads might make you believe.

“Lots and lots of Americans aren’t comfortable with either extreme,” said Philip G. Peters Jr., MU’s Ruth L. Hulston Law Professor. “Most of us would say, ‘Well, I see that point, but I see this other point, too.’”

Much of the debate centers around the moral status of an embryo, said Peters, and it’s not always divided along the same lines as the abortion dispute. Historically, he said, people are more divided about embryos than they are about fetuses.

Peters said the stem cell initiative would allow stem cell research to be done on two types of embryos: those left over from in vitro fertilization attempts and those created through somatic cell nuclear transfer, which is the procedure of taking a donated egg cell and replacing its nucleus with the nucleus of a donor cell. The embryotic cells are allowed to replicate and scientists can pluck cells for research with the idea being that these plucked cells can be turned into any kind of human cells. By law, researchers must obtain stem cells from the embryos before they reach 14 days, said R. Michael Roberts, curators’ Professor of Animal Science at MU.

Scientists must pluck the stem cells from younger embryos in order for the research to be effective, he said.

“All embryonic stem cells are obtained much earlier than that,” Roberts explained. “In fact, attempts in mice, for example, to obtain stem cells from older embryos really doesn’t work very well, so in fact, you would want to use them at around day five rather than day 14.”

According to Peters, some Missouri politicians don’t offer the same moral status to embryos created through somatic cell nuclear transfer because scientists do not currently possess the technology to create human beings from those embryos. Others see no moral objection to using spare embryos from in vitro fertilization that would otherwise be frozen indefinitely.

Under Missouri law, it is currently illegal for scientists to use discarded embryos for stem cell research because the current process would destroy the embryo, Roberts said.

Obtaining stem cells from embryos created through somatic cell nuclear transfer is currently legal in Missouri “because it does not involve fertilizing an egg with a sperm,” said Roberts, and the law specifies that an embryo is created through fertilization.

The state government has been attempting to pass legislation banning stem cell research for the past six years, said Lindsay Holwick, outreach coordinator for the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, an alliance of medical groups and citizens that support Amendment 2.

Amendment 2, which voters will decide on Tuesday, would prevent the legislature from putting stricter bans on embryonic cell research. It would allow scientists to conduct stem cell research on spare embryos and ensure their right to use embryos created through nuclear transfer, Peters said.

According to Holwick, the initiative would also enact stricter research requirements than those currently required under state law. These guidelines include institutional review boards, annual reports to the public and requirements for the process of egg donation “to ensure that women can’t be paid or coerced,” she said.

Another contested issue addressed by the amendment is the legality of cloning in Missouri. Proponents of the initiative say it bans human cloning, while opponents refute that statement.

“They’re both right, and each is telling a half-truth,” said Peters, explaining that the amendment defines cloning only as reproductive cloning, which it bans. The amendment does allow therapeutic cloning, another name for procedures such as somatic cell nuclear transfer.

“Therapeutic cloning is to take the DNA from a patient, implant it into an egg, trick the egg into thinking it’s been fertilized and get it to start reproducing cells,” explained Peters. Embryos created through somatic cell nuclear transfer are produced in this manner and thus are considered cloned embryos. The stem cell initiative would make it illegal for cloned embryos to be used for reproductive purposes by being implanted into a woman’s uterus.

Passage of Amendment 2 would allow researchers to conduct stem cell research in Missouri, and it would guarantee Missourians access to the treatments developed from this research. However, its long-term effect is still unknown.

Most experts agree that stem cell research is still in its experimental stages, and it could take several years for scientists to develop cures. But Roberts and other scientists are confident that embryonic stem cells will eventually provide medical breakthroughs.

Retired Missouri Supreme Court Judge Charles B. Blackmar and others worry that failure to pass the amendment would have a chilling effect on the state’s science industry. “The legislature might pass some regulatory legislation, but people who are interested in stem cell research would look for places other than Missouri,” Blackmar said.

And researchers worry that this could inhibit progress in other scientific areas.

“If the amendment doesn’t pass, Missouri will look foolish in the sense that it would appear to be turning its back on a medical technology with great promise, and I think that this would also have an effect not just upon stem cell research but other types of research as well,” said Roberts.

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