Stem cell dissent roils states

Times Staff Writer

Nine months ago, Missouri voters became the first in the nation to pass a constitutional amendment protecting embryonic stem cell research.

Ever since, opponents have been working feverishly to overturn it.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 3, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 03, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Stem cell research: An article in Wednesday’s Section A on embryonic stem cell research incorrectly stated that such research typically begins with cloning. The cloning method is under study, but researchers generally obtain stem cells by extracting them from embryos produced during in vitro fertilization.

They have not yet succeeded in criminalizing the research -- though they hope to accomplish that in the next election. But they have created so much uncertainty and mistrust that scientists who just last fall viewed Missouri as a beacon won’t even consider moving here now.

Unable to recruit top scientists, despite cutting-edge labs and an endowment of $2 billion, the Stowers Institute for Medical Research last week canceled plans for a major expansion in Kansas City. The research institute also moved a large chunk of its endowment to Delaware, calling the political climate in Missouri too hostile for investment.


“It’s like Amendment 2 never passed,” said Bill Duncan, president of a scientific consortium seeking to build a biotech hub here. “I won’t say we’re undaunted,” Duncan added glumly. “Because we’re not.”

The reversal in Missouri has been striking. But the state is far from unique.

Embryonic stem cell research has quickly become one of the hottest, and most divisive, topics in state legislatures nationwide. More than 100 bills on the subject have been introduced in the last seven months alone. That leads to some surreal situations: In Florida this spring, a state Senate committee simultaneously passed bills permitting and prohibiting state funding for embryonic research. (Both failed to advance.)

Even states that moved decisively to support embryonic research remain roiled by dissent.

Last fall, Connecticut began sending state funds to scientists for embryonic research. Within two months, conservative lawmakers had introduced a bill to outlaw the work. Similar maneuvers took place in Maryland and Illinois after state funding was committed.

And in California, voters no sooner approved $3 billion in bonds to fund embryonic research than the plan was challenged in court. The legal battle stalled the initiative for more than two years; bond funds began flowing to researchers just in the last few months.

In all four states, embryonic stem-cell supporters eventually won. But few expect the debate to end there.

“The stem-cell issue comes up on a regular basis in every state of the union, and every time it comes up, it pits two very entrenched, very dogged sides against each other,” said Patrick Kelly, a vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a national trade group.


Except in California, where the bond issue provides a steady stream of funds, most state money for embryonic research is appropriated annually, as part of the budget process. That means there are plenty of opportunities for those who oppose the work to try to cut funds. Even in more liberal states, grants may dwindle when the budget is tight -- or the political heat is on.

“There’s a lot of pressure to cut off funding,” said Sigrid Fry-Revere, who directs bioethics studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. “It’s happening all over the country.”

Embryonic stem cell research typically begins with cloning. Scientists insert the genetic material from an adult human cell into a human egg that’s been emptied of its own DNA. The cloned cell is then nurtured in the lab for several days, until it grows into a blastocyst, a microscopic clump of cells that could theoretically develop into a fetus if attached to a uterine wall.

At this stage, researchers destroy the embryo to extract its stem cells -- which are valued because they are enormously flexible, capable of turning into any organ, bone or muscle in the human body.

Opponents say such research is immoral because it involves creating, then killing, human life in the name of scientific advancement. Proponents, however, say the blastocyst is not equivalent to a human being; they believe embryonic cells have great potential to cure a wide range of diseases, such as Parkinson’s, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

President Bush has made limited funds available for research on embryonic cell lines that were created years ago. He will not permit federal money to be used to create or destroy new embryos.


Six states ban most or all embryonic research of this type: Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, North Dakota and South Dakota. Seven states subsidize the emerging science: California has by far the most vigorous and well-funded grant program; New York recently approved a significant subsidy as well; Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey and Wisconsin offer more modest support.

In Missouri, the constitutional amendment did not provide any tax dollars for the research. The intent was simply to assure scientists that they would not be fined or prosecuted for embryonic cloning, so long as the blastocysts were not grown beyond 14 days or implanted into a uterus.

Local billionaires James and Virginia Stowers -- who financed the Stowers Institute with a fortune made in mutual-fund management -- poured $30 million into promoting Amendment 2. That made it the most expensive campaign in state history.

The amendment passed by fewer than 51,000 votes, or about two percentage points.

The tight margin galvanized opponents. Within weeks, conservative lawmakers had introduced a measure to ban the very research protected by the amendment. That effort failed. But others have succeeded.

This spring, the legislature scratched plans to build an $85-million science center at the University of Missouri. The stated reason: Concern that the labs might one day be used for embryonic research -- even though the university’s president explicitly stated they would not.

To make sure that embryonic projects would not get funding, lawmakers banned a state science research fund from spending any money on human health -- grants will only go to projects involving plants and animals.


Meanwhile, activists are discussing a petition drive to put an embryo-cloning ban on the ballot in 2008: “We’re exploring however we can to get this back before the voters,” said Pam Fichter, president of Missouri Right to Life.

The political tumult has demoralized Kevin Eggan, an assistant biology professor at Harvard who was seriously considering bringing his embryonic stem-cell lab to the Stowers Institute. Eggan grew up in the Midwest and said he’d like to return; plus, he said, “the Stowers is the Taj Mahal of science.” After the November election, he thought he might take the leap. Now, he’s sure he won’t.

“Anyone who does the kind of work I do,” said Eggan, “would never consider going there now.”