MU researchers are closely watching the debate in Jefferson City over efforts to restrict embryonic stem cell research on the campus.
Amendments to a major higher education bill in the Missouri Senate would cut funding for new buildings in which stem cell research could be conducted, while a House joint resolution proposed by Rep. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, looks to ban all forms of human cloning in Missouri. The resolution is aimed at somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), which occurs when the nucleus of a somatic cell is inserted into an egg cell that has had its nucleus removed. The cell divides numerous times and eventually forms a blastocyst, an early-stage embryo with near identical DNA to the original organism.
The resolution is necessary, supporters say, because Amendment 2, approved by voters in November, does not specifically ban all forms of human cloning and opens loopholes for researchers.
“This reminds me of an issue a few years ago involving carrying firearms and concealed weapons,” said R. Michael Roberts, curator’s professor of animal science and biochemistry. “The state voted against it in a ballot initiative so that it would be banned. Then the legislature turned around and reversed it. That was an indication to me that sometimes the legislature is not willing to allow the democratic process to proceed, and what’s going on now may be another of those cases.”
MU researchers would follow any law passed down by the state, said Jim Coleman, vice chancellor of research at MU, but the university “would prefer to not have prohibitions on what would otherwise be valuable and legal lines of academic inquiry.”
“The university community, like the authors of this bill, strongly opposes using SCNT as a means of human reproduction,” Coleman said. “The bill goes further than that though, and would prohibit any use of SCNT. Some scientists feel that SCNT could be an important means to producing cells that never go beyond the stage of a blastocyst in development that can help us understand the most basic processes of biological development and potentially produce cures to debilitating diseases.”
The amendments to Senate Bill 389 by the Senate Education Committee could also limit stem cell research in Missouri. The bill now calls for the elimination of $113 million in construction projects, including the MU business incubator and MU’s Health Sciences Center.
Jake Halliday, leader of the Missouri Innovation Center, a nonprofit organization that will oversee operations at the business incubator, said he is not yet worrying about the financial setback.
“This bill has suffered quite a bit of change at the committee level,” Halliday said. “The legislative pendulum is currently in motion, and we don’t know when it will stop swinging. We can’t prejudge the results of any legislation until such legislation is passed. We are left to wait and react.”
While research already going on inside the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center has not been addressed by lawmakers, Jack Schultz, director of the Life Sciences Center, is worried about the negative effects such constraints could have on future research on campus.
He said such a policy could make it difficult for MU to attract the best scientific researchers.
“As a person who’s here to manage such a diverse scientific operation, anything that makes it harder for us to keep or attract top people truly saddens me,” Schultz said. “Such limitations can have chilling effects.”
Roberts said that lawmakers should not rush to place restrictions on research that could have a major positive impact on Missouri’s economy and standing in the science world. Roberts, who said he was initially “very much against” placing the stem-cell initiative on last November’s statewide ballot, said the proposed restrictions could harm the state’s image.
“In general, this isn’t just about stem cell research,” Roberts said. “This is about the legislature wanting to impose its will on the scientific community. The overall aim of stem cell research is to help patients through medical research and to improve the quality of research generally in Missouri and throughout the United States, not hamper it.”