eKC feature
June 25, 2004

 

Battle over Bioscience
By Patrick Dobson

(Editor’s note: The following is a shortened version of articles that first appeared in the June 18, 2004 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.)

M
issouri State Senator Anita Yeckel was surprised and pleased to get a call from her pastor, St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Leo Burke the evening of Jan.12.

The strongly pro-life Catholic and Republican was in her office in the state Capitol in Jefferson City preparing to attend a hearing of Lee’s Summit Sen. Matt Bartle’s bill prohibiting human cloning before the Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.

Yackel
Archbishop Raymond Leo Burke. (Photo by Patrick Dobson)

The purpose of Burke’s call, she thought, was courtesy.

“I couldn’t figure out why he was calling,” she said. “I thought it was nice, though. He was very charming. But then, I was saying what he wanted to hear. I thought I was going to vote for the bill.”

Sen. Matt Bartle’s bill, also known as the “anti-cloning” bill, would make it a felony offense to for a person to participate in, or use state funds or facilities the cloning of a human being. According to the definitions included in the bill, “‘Clone a human being’ or ‘cloning a human being,’” shall mean, “the creation of a human being by any means other than by the fertilization of a naturally intact oocyte of a human female by a naturally intact sperm of a human male.”

As such, in vitro fertilization, a useful method of producing embryos (joining egg and sperm) for implantation into women who have been unable or have had difficulty getting pregnant, would not be prohibited under the bill.

On its face, the bill would outlaw an act morally distasteful to many Americans. But it would also criminalize a biomedical research procedure called somatic cell nuclear transfer that some geneticists and doctors believe holds promise as a way to produce stem cells for tissue repair and therapy. It is a much easier method than using today’s existing stem cell lines or harvesting adult stem cells, which can be a painful and invasive procedure. To many scientists, researchers, ethicists, and common Americans, the procedure also skirts the ethical and moral difficulties of creating new life from joining egg and sperm to harvest stem cells from the resulting blastocyst, or pre-embryonic organism, a short time later.

Burke has decided to take a stand in Missouri that could have serious national implications. If successful, his campaign would essentially shut down any human genetic bioscience research efforts in Missouri. If his view prevails, one of the most ambitious research efforts in the Midwest may be forced to move elsewhere, and university work on human genetics could be in jeopardy. The debate in Missouri contains the elements of the battle over certain areas of bioscience that is going on in varying degrees nationally. And the debate is not confined to cloning of cells, but also includes concerns over health care, how resources are used, who has access to the latest developments and how the health care system is going to pay for making new applications broadly available.

Somatic cell nuclear transfer involves removing the nucleus of an egg cell. That nucleus is then replaced with the nucleus from a donor’s skin, liver, brain, or any other cell in the body.

Yeckel was the swing vote on the bill on the committee of nine senators. She had been the subject of heavy lobbying by the Missouri Catholic Conference and Missouri Right to Life in the weeks previous to the hearing.

And while the Missouri Catholic Conference is the lobbying agency for the bishops, Burke said he is acting on his conviction that, as a teacher and leader, it is his duty to make sure Catholic legislators within his diocese know the church’s position on Bartle’s legislation. Since Yeckel was a member of his flock, his obligation was to inform Yeckel of the church’s position on human cloning, he said.

Burke
Lee's Summit Sen. Matt Bartle concedes that pursuit of somatic cell nuclear transfer research may lead to groundbreaking therapies, "but taking one life to save another is inappropriate," he says. "When we begin making those kinds of judgements, we've gone well beyond our authority." (Photo by Scott Thomas, photographer, Missouri Senate)

His call to Yeckel also marked Burke’s first personal foray into Missouri politics and signaled his preference for taking an activist leadership role.

Burke joins an increasingly powerful pro-life lobby in Missouri. “Since he has come to Missouri, Archbishop Burke has weighed in decisively and forcefully on Catholic moral and social justice teachings,” said Deacon Larry Weber, head lobbyist for the Missouri Catholic Conference. “I look at him willing to be involved. He will be frequently weighing in on issues in Jefferson City and in Washington.”

Burke’s installment in the heavily Catholic St. Louis area may give him a strong platform as a church leader. St. Louis has one of the largest Catholic school systems in the nation, a large and faithful Catholic community, and a Catholic tradition dating to its establishment as a French colonial outpost. Anything he does and said will be watched and heard around the state and the nation.

In such a position, Burke adds additional heft to the pro-life agenda of the Conference, which already has a ready ear among conservative legislators, Catholic and Protestant. He already is admired by many in the Missouri General Assembly, though many legislators of all faiths often differ from the Church’s stance on the death penalty, the conflict in Iraq, and social issues.

Rep. Mike Sager, a pro-choice Democrat, has voted solidly pro-choice since entering the Missouri House in 2002, stands by his convictions so solidly that, he said, “I began denying myself communion in 1988.” Now an Episcopalian, Sager said he understands the pressures on Catholic Missouri state legislators. Moreover, pressures on legislators to vote for pro-life issues across the board are enormous.

“The Missouri Legislature is a place run on fear,” he said. “Whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice, it doesn’t matter. You vote pro-life because you’re afraid of what’s going to happen to you if you don’t.

“You talk to people who go to the Missouri General Assembly on the pro-choice side. They get there, and suddenly you find them lining up on the pro-life side, merely because they know this is a political football they can’t handle. And when it comes to therapeutic cloning or somatic cell nuclear transfer, the rhetoric is just as steamed and difficult to surmount as with abortion.”

With the Archbishop Burke’s arrival, he said, “the real challenges begin for Catholic legislators, and for all of us, really.”

Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer

Researchers at the Stowers Institute for Biomedical Research in Kansas City and at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis have already been able to produce promising results in spinal cord repair on animals, such as mice and cats, using stem cells generated with somatic cell nuclear transfer.

Normally, the DNA in the replacement nucleus is programmed to produce only the cell it came from—skin cell nuclei, for example, produce and manage skin cells only. But the cytoplasm in an egg cell can “turn on” the DNA strand in the replacement nucleus in full. The DNA in any cell in the human body has the genetic code to produce any other cell in the body, DNA from a thumbnail cell, for instance, can, under correct circumstances, be made to produce liver cells, and vice versa.

More importantly to researchers today, these DNA strands also include the information necessary for cells that aren’t required past the very beginnings of life, such as those that set the stage for gestation and the amorphous stem cells that can ultimately specialize into organs, limbs, and tissues within the first weeks and months of embryonic development.

These unspecialized stem cells can be coaxed into becoming the tissues doctors mean to treat. But just as important, researchers see stem cells as the key to discovering how to “turn on” all or part of the DNA strand at will for to build, repair, and replace selected tissues, organs, and cells—all from, by, and for the person from whom the genetic material comes.

Proponents of somatic cell nuclear transfer, such as Stowers president and CEO, Dr. William Neaves, say the procedure is a way to produce stem cells, which can take the form of any other cell in the body, without creating new human life or destroying a human embryo. Since the cells produced in the procedure have the same genetic imprint of the donor, rejection problems with implantation of donor materials do not exist.

“You are working entirely with the genes of a person conceived years earlier,” Neaves said. “You are not creating new life. You are not causing conception to occur. You are just reawakening the developmental potential that already resides in that individual’s (donor’s) genes.”

Opponents, such as Bartle and Burke, however, argue that there is no distinction between the fertilized embryo and the organism with a full human genome derived from somatic cell nuclear transfer.

Yeckel, who considers herself a good and faithful Catholic, says when she spoke on the phone with the Bishop, she was in complete agreement with him. She is solidly pro-life, believes staunchly in outlawing abortion, and would vote against the death penalty.

Yackel
"They knew I was a good Catholic," said St. Louis Sen. Anita Yeckel. "And they were courteous. But they never once wanted to really discuss the issue. At some point, they always say that it's killing a baby, and that ends it. Still, they will accept other killings–the death penalty, the war." (Photo by Scott Thomas, photographer, Missouri Senate)

Yeckel’s chat with the Bishop had buoyed her. Walking down the echoing marble halls of the Missouri Capitol to the hearing that evening, she had no qualms about what she was going to do. She believed she was going to vote to move Bartle’s anti-cloning bill out of committee. It was, after all, cloning, something morally reprehensible to begin with. Then, it would be killing a human being, something she has stood against her whole career in the senate, which she began in 1996.

“I got into the hearing, and thought I was going to vote for the bill,” she said. But once she read the bill, she says, “I couldn’t. I just saw that somatic cell nuclear transfer could have ethical implications that were different. That this was different than abortion. Matt’s bill would have done away with all the research that, as I saw it, could have allowed a mother to help her diabetic child, or a family member to help another. I just wasn’t going to vote for Matt’s bill, as much as I think he’s got good intentions.”

Another legislator, however, had “put forth an amendment that would have permitted somatic cell nuclear transfer, and human cloning would have been strictly forbidden,” Yeckel says. “With the amendment, I could have voted for Matt’s bill. That made sense, to outlaw cloning but allow this research that could yield such benefits.

“I wanted to go even farther and say that the product of the (somatic cell nuclear) transfer could never be implanted in a human uterus and the therapy could never be done for a profit, merely because the cost of the procedure itself would keep it out of the hands of a vast number of people it would help.”

The committee, however, voted down the amendment and Yeckel voted against moving Bartle’s bill out of committee. And there the bill remained with votes tied at four for the bill and four against. Her vote began a storm of hardship for Yeckel, who has consistently voted for pro-life legislation in the Missouri Senate.

“Without (Harold) Caskey’s amendment, the bill didn’t make sense to me,” she said. “You would outlaw something that could potentially help a diabetic child. With something that would be the product of a child and its mother, and something that the mother and child own? This is not the same as procreation.

“They knew I was a good Catholic,” Yeckel said. “And they were courteous. But they never once wanted to really discuss the issue. At some point, they always say that it's killing a baby and that ends it. Still, they will accept other killings—the death penalty, the war.”

On Feb. 24, Bartle approached Yeckel at the hearing just before the vote on his anti-cloning bill. “He said if I wanted to take a walk, it would be easier on me,” she said. “It would be easier on everyone. But I told him I had made a stand and was willing to suffer for it. I voted against moving it out of committee, again.”

There the bill died when the legislative session ended in May. Bartle says he couldn’t get his bill out of committee because Cape Girardeau Republican Sen. Peter Kinder, a pro-life voter, wouldn’t come to the hearings on his bill.

The push

Somatic cell nuclear transfer is important to scientists not merely for the stem cells it produces that can be given back to the donor, but for the knowledge it may bring of wakening gene expression in ordinary cells in the body. Once these transcription factors are understood, the process of somatic cell nuclear transfer may, itself, become obsolete.

Archbishop Burke, however, said the church’s position is clear. Whether produced sexually by union of egg and sperm or asexually in somatic cell nuclear transfer, the cluster of cells that arises is human.

“I think it is a manner of speaking,” he said. “There’s creation of a human life. However they want to describe it, what we have is a human life. In fact, as I understand it, there is the creation of a number (of somatic cells) at the same time in order to find the right one or the best one for the procedure. So I just don’t agree with that.

“The question of the beginning of human life as a priority and all the moral questions pertaining to human life, if you’re talking about the gift of life itself, at its beginning calls for protection and care as that life grows and develops.”

Matt Bartle concedes that pursuit of somatic cell nuclear transfer research may lead to groundbreaking therapies, “but taking one life to save another is inappropriate,” he said. When we begin making those kinds of judgments, we’ve gone well beyond our authority.”

“It’s not morally right or just to experiment on jail populations, or death row inmates. Why then let scientists kill human embryos to advance science? My problem, and that of prolifers and the pro-life community, is that we believe life begins at conception. If you bypass that concept and create a human embryo, indistinguishable from the conceived one, you’re still there.”

St. Louis Republican Rep. Jim Lembke had introduced an identical bill to Bartle’s in the Missouri House, HB 1151, which also died in committee this year. He doubts claims that human suffering will be relieved through somatic cell nuclear transfer research, though the research is only now beginning.

“I think it’s a way to sell the item,” he said. “Even if it were the fact, the ends don’t justify the means. Just the idea that through research into the process we would be harvesting stem cells from human embryos for this purpose ends the life of this human for better quality for another—it goes against all underpinnings of moral society.”

Thomas Shannon, professor of religion and social ethics at Worchester Polytechnic Institute said the church and many pro-life advocates assume that fertilization is a specific, identifiable moment. But scientists, such as Neaves and his colleagues, may have more room to move.

“The problem (with the Church view) is that embryology is a process,” said Shannon. “Fertilization itself is a process. It takes about 24 hours for the sperm to penetrate the ovum, and then for the chromosomes to line up, then for the union and formation of the DNA to occur, and then to have a beginning of cell division.

“One thing important to me is that in the blastocyst at the beginning, the cells have capacity to become other organisms. The cells have a unity, but it is not a unity of individuality. They are going in a direction, but they are fluid. It is at this point that twinning can occur, and a number of other things that are not individual. It takes a week to two weeks before the cells are committed to body parts they will become.

“This is a critical time. For the first two weeks, the organism is not an individual, and there can’t be a person without an individual.”

On the other side, Shannon said, the blastocyst, essentially a small ball filled with stem cells, is a living organism with the human genome worthy of respect. It is not due the same respect as that accorded to a person, but respect. “If you end it’s life, then it’s killing, not murder. And if it’s not murder, then there are offsetting reasons to justify killing. In this case, embryonic stem cell research for the benefits it may bring to living persons.”

Burke said, however, that the beginning of human life means the ensoulment of the individual. “My approach in that regard is that when you have a human life you have the ensoulment,” he said. “In other words, I think to separate the beginning of human life from the ensoulment is false.”

Neaves, who considers himself to be a strong Christian, said, “There is a firm scriptural basis for doing everything in our power to relieve human suffering.

“What I’ve been talking about so far has been taking that cluster of stem cells and growing them in a petri dish and introducing them back into the body to regenerate damaged heart tissue, to regenerate damaged lost insulin-secreting cells, to regenerate lost neurons in the brain. If, however, that small cluster of stem cells is taken and implanted into a uterus, we know from the example of Dolly the Sheep that, in at least some mammals—certainly in sheep and cattle, I believe it’s been done successfully in cats and mice.

“There’s debate whether it would be successful in humans. None of us here at the Institute have any desire to go along that pathway at all. Actually, we would be quite happy if the implantation of that small cluster of stem cells into a uterus were outlawed. But the possibility that you could take that cluster of stem cells and place it in a uterus and it would grow up to be a clone of the individual who donated the cell is a basis of objecting to somatic cell nuclear transfer.”

Because the technology can be misused, he said, should not preclude good faith research with the technology strictly for the purpose of regenerative therapy, “so that the stem cells become the basis of regenerating damaged tissues in a patient’s body.”

Burke’s effect on the legislature

Stem cell research and somatic cell nuclear transfer is a ready-made issue for Archbishop Burke, who was a politically known figure before he came to St. Louis.

He had made a name for himself as an outspoken religious leader when, as the Bishop of the Diocese of La Crosse, WI, he took firm public stances against abortion. In Nov. 23, 2003, Burke issued a pastoral “notification” on the Diocese of La Crosse Web site stating that in accordance with canon law, “Catholic legislators, who are members of the faithful of the Diocese of La Crosse and who continue to support procured abortion or euthanasia may not present themselves to receive Holy Communion. They are not to be admitted to Holy Communion, should the present themselves, until such time as the publically (sic) renounce their support of these most unjust practices.”

He arrived in St. Louis in early January from La Crosse amid a storm of controversy. Shortly before the Missouri Democratic primary in January, after he assumed his new job, he said publicly he would deny Sen. John Kerry the Eucharist.

Critics said he was violating the separation of church and state. Pastoral letters, notifications, and public statements have deep influence on the political life of the community. Some recalled fears that preceded John F. Kennedy’s election to the White House of American political leaders answering to the Vatican.

Burke’s supporters, however, welcome his strong voice. Robert P. George and Gerard V. Bradley of the National Review Online called the charge of violating church and state separation “silly.” “No one is compelled by law to accept his authority,” they write in the Jan. 29 editorial “Leading his flock.” “But Bishop Burke has every right to exercise his spiritual authority over anyone who chooses to accept it. There is a name for such people: They are called ‘Catholics.’”

In an interview in April with NCR, Burke said he’s studied the constitutional matter closely. His understanding is that “separation of church and state is that the Constitution and Bill of Rights prohibits the establishment of a religion. In other words, the making of a religion of the state — that this would be a Catholic state or a Lutheran state, or whatever. But it certainly does not prohibit its leaders from making their contribution to civic discourse in the interest of promoting the common good. In fact, to the contrary, our country would be harmed very much if religious and moral leaders did not speak up and make their contribution to the discussion of whatever issues are before the nation.

“I consider this a very serious duty,” said Burke, speaking in his office at the Chancery of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, located next to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis near Forest Park. “I do not consider this interference. I do not tell anyone you have to vote this way or that way. I’m simply saying to a Catholic legislator, if you vote for legislation that provides for a procured abortion, you are violating your conscience in a very serious matter.”

State Sen. Jon Dolan, a Catholic and a Republican, said he welcomes Burke and the influence he will bring to bear on pro-life issues in the Missouri General Assembly. “I’m happy we have him on the pro-life side,” he said. “He’s outspoken and he’s made me proud to be a Catholic again.”

Dolan is emblematic of the separation between the church’s stand on abortion and cloning issues and other social issues on which it has taken strong stances.

Dolan was in the Army National Guard and was called to duty in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2003 to serve as a public affairs officer. He was granted leave in September, during which time he came back to the Missouri Senate to cast the deciding vote on controversial legislation that would allow Missourians to carry concealed forearms with special permits. Missouri voters had turned down the same legislation in a referendum a few years before. The Church in Missouri lobbied against the both passage of the referendum and the bill Dolan came back from Cuba to vote on.

Dolan was chastised by the military, and after a brief investigation, forbidden from undertaking any political activity while on active duty. His vote was allowed to stand.

When it comes to the gun control, the death penalty, and many social issues, many Missouri Republicans and the Catholic Church part ways.

“I like the way Archbishop Burke plays ball,” said Bartle. “I hear about his work, and obviously he’s supportive of my work. From what I understand he’s doing, the Catholic Church is willing to put its actions where its mouth is, and not just be pro-life but actually engage, let people know. We part ways on death penalty and social issues. I think government does great harm by creating dependence. When it comes to death penalty, I believe that if you take someone’s life intentionally, the state has right to execute you. Period.”

Life beginnings, Burke said, is a fundamental and prior moral consideration to all others regarding the protection of life. With regard to war, he said, “the judgment with regard to the justice of a particular action or not lies with the civic officials. In that sense, the Church respects that decision, even though she may criticize it, may call into question.

With regard to the death penalty, Burke said, the Catholic Catechism and the teachings of the Pope make clear that the Church stands against the death penalty except in instances of self-defense. “We have forms of incarceration and so forth to deal more humanely to deal with the punishment of someone who has committed a horrible crime,” he said.

Burke said he will not be shy, however, about pursuing the church’s ant-abortion/anti-cloning stance. He will call legislators, much as he did Yeckel, when appropriate.

“I have the obligation as the bishop to call Catholic legislators to respect the moral law as taught in the church. It is my responsibility for their sake and for the sake of others to remind them of the Church’s teaching. So I will be in communication with them. Wherever I think it is a question of protecting the common good, fostering the common good, I will speak out.”

Burke doesn’t like to be called an activist. On the other hand, he sees himself as a teacher of the faith and his job is to care for souls, “including the souls of politicians, Catholic politicians, and of the others who are impacted by the actions of Catholic politicians,” he said.

“The other thing is, I mean, we live in a world which is very secularized,” he said. “There isn’t any more a kind of pervasive culture very much influenced by Judeo-Christian teaching. And, therefore, it is even more incumbent upon a bishop to teach clearly.”

When asked if he plans to issue public notifications related to political issues, whether on pro- death penalty, or social issues, he said that because he is so new to his position in St. Louis, to say would be premature. He insists though that anyone at the head of the Dioceses of St. Louis assumes a moral leadership position.

“If a Catholic legislator persists in a public position contrary to the church’s position respecting human life, that person should of his own not come to Holy Communion,” he said. “But because these acts are public, I, as Archbishop, or others, would be obligated if that person did come up to say, you know, ‘You may not receive the Holy Eucharist.’”

Conscience v. rightly formed conscience

In matters of faith, Anita Yeckel considers herself strong. “I am a good Catholic,” she said. “I have never disobeyed my church. But I do believe the Church should not have taken this stand as comprehensively as quickly as it has in the context of this research. I think some people sat at a table and made a decision.

“In years to come, I may find out that a bunch of gray heads spent years and years debating these things, but right now, I believe I’m doing the right thing.”

Neaves thinks that if “more people could understand clearly that this is not fertilization, it’s not conception, it’s not the creation of a new life, that a lot of the hesitancy about embracing the technology would disappear.”

Even when it comes to stem cells derived from fertilized embryos, such as those of the 30 or so stem cell lines approved by the Bush Administration for research in 2001 obtained from destroyed or aborted embryos, Americans seem to favor stem cell research.

The Juvenile Diabetes Research foundation found in a survey of 600 self-identified conservative voters conducted in late 2003 that while 36 percent of those surveyed said they strongly opposed such research, 56 percent said they somewhat or strongly supported it. Of the same group of people, only 23 percent wanted to ban stem cell research altogether, 22 percent agreed with Bush Administration limitations, and 44 percent believed the policy should be broadened.

Problems that researchers now have with the existing cells lines are several. The first and foremost is that while these stem cells are just as amorphous as those produced in somatic cell nuclear transfer, problems arise with immune reaction and rejection similar to that experienced in organ transplant surgery.

“That is another reason we are so excited about this,” said Neaves. “You don’t have to worry about that individual patient mounting an immune reaction and rejecting the reintroduced cells. It’s his or her own cells being placed back into their bodies. Not recognized as being foreign at all.”

Neaves believes somatic cell nuclear transfer research “holds so much promise, holds so much potential for the relief of human suffering that we believe it’s extremely important to preserve an environment in Missouri where this kind of work can be done.

“In this instance, I think it’s justified for a person to use his or her own cells,” said Anita Yeckel. “I would bring up that intent is a big part of sin, and intent is important. To me, there is no intention ever to grow a human, or to grow a person to harvest kidneys or that sort of thing. Rather, this is a way, as far as I can see, of finding beneficial cells to inject back into the donor.”


Bills may force researchers to relocate

by Patrick Dobson

The blanket anti-cloning bills in the Missouri General Assembly didn’t make it out of committee for deliberation on the floor this year. But proponents of the bills will be gearing up for next. If successful, they could force biomedical researchers to go elsewhere.

Lee’s Summit Sen. Matt Bartle’s bill SB 765, which would criminalize somatic cell nuclear transfer—and an identical bill sponsored in the Missouri House by St. Louis Rep. Rep. Jim Lembke, HB 1151— would “creation of a human being by any means other than by the fertilization of a naturally intact oocyte of a human female by a naturally intact sperm of a human male”—essentially criminalizing somatic cell nuclear transfer.

Anyone participating in such an act or using public funds and public facilities for such purposes of human cloning would be guilty of a Class B felony.

Yackel
The Stowers Institute for Biomedical Research in Kansas City. (Photo by Mike Sinclair, courtesy the Stowers Institute)

The legislation would inhibit biomedical research in the state, says Dr. William Neaves, president and CEO of Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, MO. Already; the threat of such legislation has had a chilling effect.

“We strongly support the ability to do somatic cell nuclear transfer research in Missouri,” Neaves says. “The Institute and governing board believe that that avenue or research is so important that if it became illegal to do research in Missouri, the Institute would not be able to fulfill its desire to confine the future growth of the Institute to Missouri.”

Rose Windmiller, head of government relations at Washington University, says that her institution stands against any legislation that would stand in the way of bio-med research that includes somatic cell nuclear transfer. The University is the other major medical research institution in Missouri currently doing stem cell research.

Presently, scientists at Washington University and the Stowers Institute rely on chick embryos, fish, cat, mice, sea urchins, and yeast for their research. According to Stowers, humans have genetic make-ups similar to these model species. These species genes, however, tend to mutate more quickly than their human counterparts, making them useful in studying the way disease affects different parts of the genome.

One of the most important researchers in the field, Dr. John W. McDonald, now has his lab at Washington University. His influential work has included the successful use of stem cell therapies on spinal cord injuries in mice. Among McDonald’s patients is actor Christopher Reeve. Another Washington University researcher, Steve Titelbaum has founded a biotech company.

Moreover, while adult stem cells are good for treating some diseases, particularly those of the blood, embryonic stems cells, or those produced by somatic cell nuclear transfer, are thought to useful for a wide range of diseases, and tissue and organ repair. Adult stem cells don’t reproduce well in the laboratory, but stems cells extracted from the blastocyst of a somatic cell tend to reproduce quickly and for a long time.

Bartle has introduced his legislation in the Senate two years running. Lembke took over a bill this year that been introduced in the house for several years. Both say they will introduce their bills again when the legislature reconvenes in the fall.

The stakes are high in a debate that pits medical researchers who argue that embryonic stem cell research holds the key to curing disease against religious anti-abortion and pro-life advocates. Opponents see even the prospects of creating stem cells with somatic, or adult cells, from donors for use in those same donors as the creation of individual life. Trading even one human life, opponents argue, isn’t worth the return in money—federal, state, local, and private.

Bartle and Lembke have serious backers. The Missouri Catholic Conference and Missouri Right to Life have both come out strongly in favor of their legislation. Archbishop of St. Louis Raymond Leo Burke, who has spoken out strongly in his previous post in La Crosse, WI, has made it known already that he believes Missouri should take the lead in outlawing somatic cell nuclear transfer, regardless of what good may come of the research or jobs or money to the state.

“We can never justify doing something seriously wrong to achieve a good end,” Archbishop Burke said in an interview in the Archdiocese of St. Louis Catholic Center. “It concerns me a great deal that there would be funds coming to the state that could help people. But what we must do as citizens is insist on the provision of public funds for those in need without being coerced into a practice that we believe is intrinsically wrong, evil.

“Even if the whole of society, 49 states of the union all think this is fine, we still have to insist in our own home state—and hopefully this would be understood in the wider nation—that this is a human life and demands respect and protection.”

Neaves and other researchers, however, believe that the cell produced in somatic cell nuclear transfer is essentially that of the donor. The importance of the procedure to the Institute and other facilities like it is that once certain processes for prevention and cure or disease are more clearly understood, therapies using cells produced with a donor’s own DNA can avoid existing problems with immune reaction and rejection.

“We could envision recruiting who would wish to work with human stem cells grown in a petri dish generated by somatic cell nuclear transfer,” says Neaves. “We do not have such a person at the Institute at this time. But we believe this line of research holds so much promise, holds so much potential for the relief of human suffering that we believe it’s extremely important to preserve an environment in Missouri where this kind of work can be done.”

The Stowers Institute has become a powerful economic engine in Kansas City. After their own close calls with cancer, American Century Companies founder Jim Stowers and his wife Virginia founded the Institute in 1994. Funded with an separate endowment financed, in part, by American Century Investments, the Institute bought and refurbished a midtown Kansas City hospital whose clientele had moved to the suburbs, spending nearly $300 million on the 10 acre campus, facility, and parking garage.

The Stowers endowment is worth now about $1.7 billion, says Neaves. The endowment is slated to grow with the concurrently with American Century Investments. The Institute spends 3.5 percent of its value each year on basic biomedical research in its facilities, conducted by its employees. Within the next five years, the Institute board plans to build a second facility at least as large and as expensive as the first.

Currently, the Institute employs 250 scientists, researchers, assistants, and maintenance personnel, with that number expanding to 600 as the facility nears capacity. A second facility would employ a similar number of people. In addition, fifteen Stowers scientists hold faculty appointments at the University of Kansas, and three at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, across the street from the Stowers laboratories. Some eighteen Ph.D. graduate students conduct dissertation research at the Institute and 46 postdoctoral fellows pursue advanced research training there.

Moreover, the city of Kansas City, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, the Kansas City Civic Council, and the Kansas City Downtown Council have pinned hopes for multi-billion life-sciences hub in the city around Stowers, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, area hospitals, pharmaceutical research, development, and manufacturing firms, and other related businesses.

Should the Missouri General Assembly pass a bill that limits somatic cell nuclear transfer, Stowers would consider “very seriously growing the Institute in jurisdictions that are favorably disposed to this kind of research,” says Neaves.

Such states include New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California. Other states, including Louisiana, Illinois, and Delaware have legislation pending or have legislative sponsors who, like Bartle and Lembke on the anti-cloning side, intend to keep trying to make somatic cell nuclear transfer legal.

“So, at the time when some states are actively encouraging this kind of research,” says Neaves, for Missouri to criminalize it is a prospect that we view with great alarm.”

Already, the Institute has taken note of states that are friendlier toward stem cell research with somatic cell nuclear transfer. The Institute will go wherever it must, Neaves says, as much as he, Jim and Virginia Stowers, and Institute personnel don’t want that to happen.

The multi-billion American Century Investments was founded in Kansas City in 1958. The firm is based mile from the Stowers Institute in Kansas City, MO.


Legislative action on stem cell research nationwide

by Patrick Dobson

  • In January, New Jersey passed legislation passed legislation that outlawed reproductive cloning but specifically encouraged somatic cell nuclear transfer research for regenerative medicine. California passed that kind of legislation eighteen months in 2002. Bills before the Massachusetts legislature would mirror the efforts of New Jersey and California.

  • The Louisiana Senate, which once banned human cloning altogether, has advanced a bill out of committee that would criminalize reproductive cloning and allow therapeutic cloning or somatic cell nuclear transfer for the generation of stem cells. A similar bill passed the House on a vote of 55-42. It now awaits a joint resolution that will go before both houses for a vote.

  • A reproductive cloning ban that would have encouraged biomedical research with somatic cell nuclear transfer died in a deadlocked Illinois Senate May 12, 28-28. Its backers will try again when the legislature convenes again in the fall.

  • At the end of April, Robert Venables of the Delaware Senate withdrew a bill he sponsored that would have allowed stem cell research from somatic cell nuclear transfer. While science was behind stem cell research, he said, election-year pressures prevented him from pushing the bill, which had the backing of some scientists and biomedical research companies. Catholic and other church and anti-abortion groups lobbied against the bill.

  • In the second week of May, 206 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter asking President Bush to allow funding of research on embryos that would normally be discarded from fertility clinics. The letter’s signers included three dozen pro-life advocates convinced stem cell research should move forward after the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation sent patients to visit legislators on Capitol Hill.

  • In April, Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs stated in a pastoral letter that Catholics who vote for politicians who support pro-choice legislation, stem cell research, euthanasia, or same sex marriage should not present themselves for Holy Eucharist. While there was no way for a priest to know how a parishioner has voted, he said, it was a matter of Catholic teaching and not politics that moved him to speak publicly on the matter.

  • At the same time, Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick has stated he does not favor using communion as a sanction for voting their consciences, and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles said John Kerry would be welcome to receive the Eucharist in his diocese.

  • The NIH reported in late February that at least 16 of the 78 approved stem cell lines had died or failed to reproduce in their lab environments, making them useless for research, and that a majority of the rest would likely come to the same fate. When a colony of stem cells crashes, or dies, it cannot be replaced under the Bush Administration’s restrictions developed on embryonic stem cell research. The restrictions allowed research on existed stem cell lines derived from material from aborted or miscarried fetuses but would not allow more to be developed in the same manner. Many of the approved stem cell lines have developed cancers or genetic abnormalities akin to genetic mutations that make them useless for research or therapy.

 


              
              
                 

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