Transcripts of stem cell discussion

Thursday, November 2, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:23 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

R. Michael Roberts, curator’s professor of animal science at MU, describes the effect of Amendment 2 on scientific research in Missouri. Amendment 2 would allow stem cell scientists to operate under federal guidelines and protect scientists’ work from future proposed state law restrictions.

1. What are the potential benefits of embryonic stem cells as opposed to adult stem cells?

Roberts: “Adult stem cells are being used for treating certain types of diseases for, say, blood cells, to replace cells in the bone marrow that may have been damaged by cancer or by radiation or by chemicals. There are other uses of stem cells as I said, adult stem cells, one is being skin replacement. On the other hand, there is very little evidence at the moment that adult stem cells — for example, ones derived from bone marrow — could be used for example to help cure spinal injuries and so on. So I think scientists generally are not too sure that adult stem cells — that is stem cells that have been obtained from adult tissues — which might have narrow usefulness in treating disease or damage to those tissues, won’t necessarily have a broad effect. In other words, it’s unlikely these adult stem cells will be able to contribute to all 270 tissues found in the human body, whereas embryonic stem cells certainly have that potential.”

2. What are the sources of embryos for stem cell research allowed by the amendment?

Roberts: “One would be to allow the use of human embryos that are no longer wanted by couples undergoing fertility treatment. And there are many more of these produced than can be used, as long as these embryos are not older than 14-days of age. All embryonic stem cells are obtained much earlier than that. 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. The other approach, which is not illegal in this state because it does not involve fertilizing an egg with a sperm is the cloning technology — that is, somatic cell nuclear transfer whereby an oocyte from a woman is taken — the genetic material is removed and replaced by the nucleus from a cell from a patient. That, in fact, is not illegal even though that is actually the cloning procedure. That is presently not illegal in the state of Missouri whereas using spare embryos is illegal.”

3. If the amendment does not pass, how will that affect Missouri’s science industry?

Roberts: In terms of my own research, I can probably continue to do my research whether or not the amendment passes because I’m working with federally approved lines, and I can use federal funds for doing this research. The cell lines I use were among those approved by President Bush in August 2001. On the other hand, my concern is whether there would be increased restrictions brought about through the (state) legislature which could make it difficult, for example, to do the sort of research I’m doing. For example, working in a state building as I am now, you know, could that be made more difficult and so on, so there are those concerns. But in general, I’m not really too worried. I like to think that things will become less restrictive. I think that 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. I mean people don’t particularly want to relocate to a state that appears to be trying to prevent an important technology. In other words, I think it would have a broader chilling effect other than on stem cell research.

4. If the amendment does pass, how soon will treatments be available?

Roberts: “Well there are several issues here. One is the safety of the procedures. And in general, in therapeutic cases, a patient for example, who is terminally ill will often elect to do therapies which are experimental. And so there is always the possibility of experimental therapies starting sometime soon, possibly in the next five years, I really don’t know. But I think for these therapies to become demonstrated to be safe and to become routine, it’s going to take quite a long time. And for certain types of disease that we’re talking about — for example, Alzheimer’s — my suspicion is that they will never be useful for that because here you’re trying to reverse tissue which has undergone severe deterioration. So my suspicion is that for diseases like Alzheimer’s, the potential is there, but my view is that it’s very unlikely that there will be a quick cure for Alzheimer’s through stem cells. On the other hand, Parkinson’s disease might well be a candidate for embryonic stem cell treatment, because it’s a select number of neurons and we know in what part of the brain these neurons are damaged. And there already are instances in animal cases where it does appear that new neurons can be created from stem cells that may be able to produce dopamine, and it’s the dopamine producing neurons which are damaged in Parkinson’s disease.”

Philip G. Peters Jr., MU’s Ruth L. Hulston law professor, explains some of the legal implications of Amendment 2.

5. Why are some people concerned about exploitation of egg donors if the amendment passes?

Peters: “Until the ads started running, I hadn’t heard any concern expressed about American women being exploited for eggs because the process that’s required in this amendment prohibits the payment of anything over the cost that the donor bears in making the donation — such as she misses a day of work, for example. I have heard complaints as I’ve gone around and spoken to groups about the fear that, say, third world countries where a small amount of money would be hugely important to a family, that in those circumstances, women might be exploited, and that’s something that we would need to keep our eye out for. But as far as Missouri women, eggs are being donated now, and the laws of informed consent, tort law applies and required that informed consent be obtained from the donors. And there doesn’t seem to be much controversy about it working reasonably well. In fact, in vitro fertilization clinics even pay money, and they’re allowed to pay money to donors of sperm or egg to induce more people to contribute. So I’m not really worried about the exploitation of American women so much as I am that with this ban on paying cash to donors that they simply won’t be able to get enough eggs from women, and they’re going to need to figure out a way to use stem cells to make new eggs, and that’s what they’ll need to do to have a large enough supply.”

6. Does the amendment allow human cloning?

Peters: “Well I think that both the supporters and proponents of this ballot initiative have told essentially half-truths. The supporters say it’s not cloning, the opponents say it is, as if there were only one form of cloning. But in truth, cloning is a scientific technique that can be used for two distinct purposes. One is to create a baby that’s a genetically identical copy of the parents, and that’s called reproductive cloning, and this statute outlaws that. The other is therapeutic cloning. 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, among which are the stem cells that are going to be used to treat the patient. Because the stem cells are used for therapy, it’s been called therapeutic cloning, and those embryos will not survive past the harvesting of the embryos, so they’re not going to be used to make a baby. So there are two distinct kinds of uses for nuclear transfer: one is to make stem cells for therapeutic use, and the other is to make babies.”

7. Will state funding be used for stem cell research if the amendment passes?

Peters: “I’m a little puzzled by the debate over state funding. The amendment expressly says that it does not mandate any state money be used to fund this research, and the sponsors of it really are just hoping to do their own work with either federal funding or private funding. But they want to be able to build labs and facilities in Missouri with the confidence that it won’t be outlawed by the legislature next year. And that’s why they want a constitutional amendment, is that so the legislature can’t outlaw it as it has been considering for several years. There is an aspect in which the statute will affect state funding, however. If an organization gets state funding for some other purpose, say, for example, the University of Missouri got state funding, well of course it gets some state funding as part of its budget and it could (receive) additional state funding to do particular research projects, say on the economic effects of better roads in Missouri. The amendment specifically says that the legislature can’t make, in this case, the university, ineligible for the highway research money simply because on some other part of the campus there are people doing stem cell research. Now the reason – you say, why would they even need to do that, the legislature wouldn’t take away the road money – but in fact that’s been the approach that the legislature’s used trying to starve Planned Parenthood out of business.”

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