Missouri stem cell ban possible

Both sides of somatic cell nuclear transfer debate are pleading their case to legislators

Jan 3, 2005
Alison McCook(abmccook@yahoo.com)

When Missouri's elected representatives arrive to work for the 2005 legislative session this week, they will have their hands full of material about the ethics and implications of a proposed statewide ban on somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).

The material includes a letter and background information from Rep. Jim Lembke (R), one of the bill's originators, describing what he says are the advantages of adult stem cells over embryonic stem cells and the ethical problems with both reproductive and therapeutic cloning.

However, leaders from Missouri research institutions have also sent their own letter to legislators, urging them to ban reproductive cloning but not SCNT, a step they argue would undermine the state's entire life science industry. The letter, sent last month, is signed by William H. Danforth, chairman of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis; Elson Floyd, president of the University of Missouri System; William Neaves, president of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City; and Mark S. Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis.

Rep. Lembke told The Scientist that this year's bill is identical to one he proposed during last year's session, where it received 102 cosigners—much more than the 82 needed to pass any bill. However, the bill never made it out of the committee assigned to examine its merits. Two years ago, he said the same bill passed through committee, survived a debate by the House of Representatives, and found its way into the Senate. However, by then, there were only days left in that year's session, so the bill died, Lembke said.

Each year, the process has to start all over again, Lembke said, adding that he plans to file the bill during the first week of the upcoming session, beginning January 5. He predicted it would once again receive a majority of support, and this time, it would pass. "I think that there's going to be a real effort… to move this bill much sooner," he said.

If legislators approve this bill, it could do "grave harm to research institutions across the state," Stowers' Neaves told The Scientist. He argued that a statewide ban on SCNT would limit Missouri's ability to recruit and retain biomedical scientists, and not just those who want to work with embryonic stem cells. "The damage would extend far beyond regenerative medicine to every field of biomedical research," Neaves said. In fact, if the stem cell ban passes, Neaves said the Stowers Institute "would be forced" to build its anticipated 600,000–square foot second facility outside the state. "Future expansion of the institute must occur in a jurisdiction that welcomes this research," he said.

Danforth told The Scientist that a statewide ban could also affect patient care in Missouri, if bright doctors in training are discouraged by the state's conservative approach to research. "It would go beyond losing scientists," he said. "I think we would not be able to attract the same caliber of physicians, either."

In the letter distributed to legislators, the scientists also argue that a statewide ban on SCNT could deprive Missouri citizens of access to the treatments and cures that come out of embryonic stem cell research conducted outside the state, forcing them to settle for "second-class healthcare."

Neaves explained that he and his colleagues plan to continue to discuss SCNT with Missouri legislators to dispel misconceptions and to persuade them of its benefits. "The more people know about this research procedure and understand its potential to relieve human suffering, the more supportive they become," he said.

Neaves added that he, too, is optimistic. "Many Missouri legislators now feel comfortable endorsing somatic cell nuclear transfer," he said.

Ursula Goodenough, a professor of biology at Washington University, who is not participating in the drive to educate legislators about stem cell research, said that after California voters chose to allow embryonic stem cell research in the state in the last election, people are paying more attention to the debate. "This is the first year where states are trying to assert themselves independently," she told The Scientist.

Goodenough noted that the ban would certainly have a "negative" effect on research in Missouri. But for now, whether it will finally pass this year remains unclear. "We don't know how it will play out," she said.