Stem cell reports offer little info

The first documentations are brief and full of scientific jargon.
Monday, July 9, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:36 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — During roughly the past four decades, American colleges and universities have awarded more than 2 million bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in the biological sciences, according to the National Science Foundation.

If you hold one or more of those degrees, you might be able to understand the following statement describing research done at MU:

“Transcription factors in Trophectoderm differentiation; utilizing cell lines hESC (WA01) at passage 23 and H9 at passage 19 (WA09).”

That’s how the university complied with a new constitutional amendment requiring all institutions conducting human embryonic stem cell research in Missouri to make a description of their research available to the public.

The provision was part of an amendment, approved by 51 percent of voters last November, that ensured any federally allowed stem cell research can occur in Missouri.

In exchange for that right, the amendment required institutions to tell the state by June 30 how the public could access their reports for the prior calendar year.

The first deadline has passed, and just two institutions reported conducting human embryonic stem cell research in 2006 — the university system’s flagship Columbia campus and the private Washington University in St. Louis.

Both reports are brief.

Washington University states it had one project using a human stem cell line approved for federal funding by the National Institutes of Health.

“The purpose of the project,” the report states, “is to compare the physiology of neurons derived from human and mouse ES cells.”

James Huettner, an associate professor of cell biology and physiology at Washington University School of Medicine, said he is trying to determine the conditions that cause stem cells to develop into each of the hundreds, if not thousands, of different types of human nerve cells.

Although he’s not to this point yet, the ultimate application would be to develop and replace nerve cells for people who have ailments like Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

MU provided just that one technical sentence cited above to describe its project.

A translation was provided by Michael Roberts, a curator’s professor of biochemistry and animal science. His research examines how human stem cells begin to develop into the placenta in the early stages of pregnancy. The number and letter codes in the report refer to particular stem cell lines used in the research.

Roberts said probably about 50 percent of human pregnancies fail because the embryos do not implant properly in the womb or the placentas do not correctly form. He is hoping to help identify what goes wrong.

Although Roberts’ research isn’t to this point, one ultimate application might be to identify which embryos are more likely to succeed for in vitro fertilization.

But it’s unlikely the public would know that from the brief, bureaucratic description provided by the university.

“I might have liked to have known in laymen’s terms: Why do you do that?” said Donn Rubin, chairman of the Missouri Coalition of Lifesaving Cures, which sponsored Amendment 2.

Rubin said the intent of the reporting requirement is for the public to see which institutions are conducting human embryonic stem cell research, the source of their stem cells and whether the research is aimed at finding a cure for a particular disease — all without too much paperwork.

Some opponents of the amendment remain skeptical.

Jaci Winship, executive director of Missourians Against Human Cloning, laughed when the University of Missouri’s report was read to her over the phone.

“Certainly if the intent (of the reporting requirement) was to understand the research being done, it wouldn’t be fulfilled,” Winship said. “I suspect the intent was to look like it would accomplish something more than to actually accomplish it.”

The Kansas City-based Stowers Institute for Medical Research, whose founders financed most of the record $30 million campaign for Amendment 2, reported no human embryonic stem cell research last year.

But a Stowers research team has since begun a project using human embryonic stem cells, spokeswoman Marie Jennings said. Those researchers are coaxing stem cells to develop into the types of cells that make up the human spine, with the goal of learning more about the causes of scoliosis, she said.

The Stowers project wasn’t included in the recent report because it didn’t start until 2007. So the public may have to wait until next year to view its constitutionally mandated description.

That should allow plenty of time for institutions to do a little research on making their reports more readable for the public.

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