KANSAS CITY — Eight months ago, Missouri seemed well on its way to becoming a national leader in stem cell research.
Voters amended the state’s constitution to protect stem cell research — even the controversial form using cells from human embryos. Actor Michael J. Fox appeared in TV ads, visibly shaking from Parkinson’s disease as he sought votes for stem cell supporter Claire McCaskill in her bid for the U.S. Senate.
Now the spotlight is all but gone after a research institute and lawmakers withdrew financial support.
“Things are obviously not moving forward,” said Chuck Graham, Columbia’s state senator and a Democrat who backed the amendment in November. “Right now, you can’t tell the amendment passed. People are running in the opposite direction. It’s incredibly frustrating.”
Some researchers even fear the techniques known as therapeutic cloning could still be outlawed in Missouri.
Scientist Kevin Eggan had once considered packing up his lab at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and moving to Missouri. Now he’s reluctant.
“I couldn’t possibly come to a place where I thought the potentially lifesaving research I want to do could become illegal,” said Eggan, who works on degenerative nerve disorders such as like Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The setbacks began when conservative Missouri lawmakers stripped funding for some prominent life sciences projects, including a $150 million research center at MU.
Then in June, a medical institute in Kansas City announced it would halt its $300 million expansion project because of controversy over the research. The founders of the Stowers Institute of Medical Research had financed most of the $30 million campaign to pass the amendment.
Critics of embryonic stem cell research are opposed to the process because it requires embryos to be destroyed to harvest their cells.
“I think stem cell research is extraordinarily promising and exciting and that we ought to move forward on it. But Missouri does not need to clone human embryos in order to become a leader in life sciences,” said state Sen. Matt Bartle, a Republican who wants to repeal November’s vote.
Opponents were also encouraged when three teams of scientists announced last month that they had produced the equivalent of embryonic stem cells in mice without destroying embryos.
Two weeks later, President Bush vetoed a bill that would have permitted human embryonic research — a clear signal to like-minded Missourians who saw November’s vote, 51 percent to 49 percent, as anything but a clear mandate.
Some amendment supporters insist the stem cell movement is still moving forward.
“There’s no question that Missouri is better off today than it was prior to the November election,” said Connie Farrow, spokeswoman for the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures, which supports the measure.
Proof of the progress, Farrow said, can be found in embryonic stem cell projects at Washington University in St. Louis, the Stowers Institute and the University of Missouri.
Stowers researchers, for example, are coaxing stem cells to develop into the types of cells that make up the human spine to possibly learn more about the causes of scoliosis.
Stowers spokeswoman Laurie Roberts said the institute has been conducting human embryonic stem cell research since the start of the year. Finding more stem cell researchers has been a struggle, she said, but the effort continues.
The institute “absolutely wants to expand and to do it right here in the state of Missouri,” Roberts said, referring to the more than 100 acres that the institute bought in Kansas City.
Other states are closely watching developments in Missouri.
Since the amendment’s passage, Farrow said, stem cell supporters from Nebraska, Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Virginia have contacted the Coalition for Lifesaving Cures. They want pointers on how to promote stem cell initiatives in their states, she said.
“Our stem cell amendment is a model for other states,” Farrow said. “We’re not going to stand idly by and let a few minority interest groups take our state backward.”